News: So that others may live
Story by Staff Sgt. Ted Nichols
FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. - To those around him, he was their team leader and physically no one knew what was going on inside of Sgt. 1st Class Daniel S. Famous - except him. As his unit prepared for possible deployment, he knew he wouldn’t be deploying with his fellow medics from the 108th Field Artillery.
Famous, who lives in Mount Joy, Pa., was born with a genetic disorder caused by the growth of cysts in his kidneys. Known as polycystic kidney disease, or PKD, the disease was now progressing to a stage that his kidneys were in serious trouble and not properly filtering the toxins from his body.
“I got to the point where I was at 12 percent kidney function, and once you get to 10 percent, that’s when you’re supposed to go on dialysis,” said Famous. “At 15 percent, they want you to go on the kidney donor list.”
Famous’ unit had just received notification of sourcing for deployment, and as medical platoon sergeant and team leader he gathered his soldiers at the end of drill in November 2012 to break the news he wouldn’t be deploying with them.
Finding the match
“I got all of my medics together and explained to them the importance of picking up and learning the lessons I was trying to teach them and to ask as many questions as they could because I wouldn’t be deploying with them,” said Famous. “That is when I told them about what I was experiencing and that there was no way I would be able to deploy with them, and I handed out a card that had my name on it and the contact information for a donor specialist.”
Enter Sgt. Joseph S. Love, a relatively new medic in the unit from Enola, Pa. It was during drill in November 2012 that Famous told his medics he would not deploy with them. Love was not present at the meeting when Famous made the announcement, but received the donor card from another unit member.
“When I got the card it was a bit of a blow, when your leader or boss isn’t able to deploy with you, it adds more weight to the situation,” said Love. “There was also a genuine concern for another human being as I’ve never known anyone personally that needed an organ transplant.”
Love described an initial urge to go out and get tested to find out if he was compatible to give one of his two kidneys, but that initial urge was tempered by concerns about how it would affect his military career and family.
“I didn’t want to rush into something without knowing 100 percent what I would need to do,” said Love. “If I wasn’t 100 percent committed, it wouldn’t be fair to Sgt. Famous.”
Love worked to sort concerns out on his end and didn’t volunteer for the extensive testing process until March of 2013 – one month after his unit found out their deployment was no longer on the books.
Let the tests begin
Love detailed the initial month’s tests that ran the gamut of weekly blood pressure tests to blood work to urinalysis and glucose testing. The next big test would be determining whether or not he would be a tissue match.
“If you end up being a tissue match, that’s the first big step,” explains Love. “It was exciting to hear back I was a match.”
“I had a very strong feeling from the beginning that I would be a match and this worked out,” said Love. “I try to live by faith. The Bible says, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’ I knew that I was going to be a match because God had prepared me for this task.”
Love entered his final stages of testing in August 2013 and passed all of the tests and was determined healthy enough to donate. It was at this point he decided to break the news to Sgt. Famous during his final annual training with the unit before transferring to his current unit 2-104th Cavalry headquarters.
Breaking the news
“I had not told anyone about this whatsoever except my wife and the transplant coordinators,” said Love, who set up a one-on-one meeting with Famous at the end of annual training under the pretense of looking for some parting words of wisdom from his boss.
Love and Famous went for a walk where the talk went as planned until Love interrupted.
“That’s great and all, but really I just wanted to tell you I passed all the kidney donation tests and I’m a good donor and it’s yours if you want it,” said Love.
“The majority of my medics can tell you that I’m normally not without some kind of comments or words,” said Famous. “This left me speechless for at least five minutes because this is such a huge gesture of kindness from one human being to another.”
Famous explained that the fact this is coming from a living donor makes a big difference in his future. Famous said statistics show a kidney coming from a living donor last on average 30 years compared to the average of 15-20 years coming from a deceased donor.
“Not only will this enable me to maintain the way of life I’m used to, it will allow me to stay in the Pennsylvania National Guard on my terms until I’m ready to retire,” said Famous. “If this hadn’t come through, I’d be starting dialysis in the next couple of months and my military career would be over.”
Love was calm in his demeanor and exuded a genuine sense of compassion when he explained why he is doing this.
“This is something I wanted to do – I wanted to help,” said Love. “It felt like the right thing to do, I was in a position to give and to not at least try I would always regret and wonder ‘What if?’”
Committed to serve
As for the concerns for their military careers, organ donation isn’t an everyday occurrence in the military and is somewhat unchartered territory.
“I came to terms with the fact that I was ready to make this decision no matter the consequences on my military career,” said Love. “I felt strongly the military would make an exception as it would really be an odd reason to kick someone out because of the nature of the gesture; I’d think this would be the type of soldier the military would want.”
“If for some reason there’s a bureaucrat out there that says I can’t serve because this box is checked, that’s OK because this benefits Dan,” explained the 31-year-old Love. “He can be a father and husband without dialysis and that is more important than anything else.”
They have both received assurances they will be able to stay in and are deployable under certain circumstances, but know their records will constantly be reviewed on a situational basis.
Love knows once the transplant is complete he’ll face a medical board and probably be assigned a profile.
“My goal is to not have a profile at all and get back to where I was before the disease progressed to the point it is at now,” said Famous, who is now 46. “I want to go back to being a service to my country without a profile and being an example to my junior enlisted soldiers and continue being a part of the Pennsylvania National Guard.”
The next step
Love and Famous have prepared to complete the donation on Feb. 18 in Harrisburg where the procedure consists of two independent surgeries followed by four to six weeks of recovery.
“There are two surgeons that will team together to do both surgeries,” said Love. “They’ll be removing my kidney, putting it on ice, cleaning and prepping for the next surgery where they will put the kidney in Dan.”
As they both prepared to go under the knife, they were resolute in getting the message out about the importance of becoming an organ donor or getting tested to become a living donor.
“There is a huge need for living donors and I encourage anyone interested in helping someone to go out and get tested for compatibility,” said Famous who explained the financial liability and insurance coverage for the entire process comes through the recipient. “It’s still your option whether or not to make the donation after the testing, but getting tested takes you one step closer to helping out another in need just as Sgt. Love is helping me.”
With surgery day looming, they were much more at ease than the average person thanks to their training as medics - training that has strengthened their trust in modern medicine and numbed them to the fears the average person has with complex medical procedures. But in the end, the very act about to take place also exemplified to them and their peers the very creed medics subscribe to – so that others may live.
This is part one of a two part article. Part two will detail the transplant and Love and Famous’ recovery and transition back to service in the Pennsylvania National Guard.