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Gift of life - reservist donates kidney to fiancé

  • Published
  • By Capt. Marnee A.C. Losurdo
  • 512th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Master Sgt. Laura Perry gave her heart to her fiancé in 2005 after a chance meeting at the NCO club on Lackland AFB, Texas. Three years later she gave him the gift of life.

Sergeant Perry, an air reserve technician with the 512th Civil Engineer Squadron here, donated her kidney to her fiancé and fellow squadron member Staff Sgt. Mark Shortt Sept. 22.

In August 2007, Sergeant Shortt was diagnosed with acute renal failure, meaning his kidneys lost the ability to filter waste products from the blood and regulate the body's fluid balance.

It was then Sergeant Perry said she would donate her kidney if she were a match.

When paths cross

"Mark and I feel God brought us together for a reason, and my being able to donate my kidney to him was meant to be," said Sergeant Perry, who was assigned to Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass., when they met.

She was on temporary duty while he was attending technical school at Lackland AFB. After an 18-year-hiatus from the Navy, Sergeant Shortt joined the 512th Airlift Wing in December 2003.

Their 2005 meeting sparked a long-distance relationship, and she took an air reserve technician position here two years later. In June 2007, they purchased a home in Dover.

"We felt on top of the world," said Sergeant Perry. "Everything was going great."

However, that changed three months later.

Sergeant Shortt, on orders, woke up Aug. 23, 2007, and said he felt like his stomach was on fire. He immediately called the 436th Medical Group, and the medical staff gave him a blood test. The next day, he was told he needed dialysis, a treatment that passes the patient's blood through a special machine to remove waste and excess body fluids.

"I was hurt," said Sergeant Shortt, recalling the initial shock. "I couldn't believe it was happening to me."

But, Sergeant Shortt wasn't the only one hurting.

"I was so upset. I cried every day for a while," said Sergeant Perry.

Their hope, their dreams and life together depended on a kidney transplant.

There are two types of kidney transplants: those that come from living donors and those that come from donors who have died.

Shortly after his diagnosis, Sergeant Perry and several of her and Sergeant Shortt's family members, friends and squadron members submitted test kits to John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Md., which screened their blood for a potential match.

Three weeks after submitting her kit, Sergeant Perry had her answer.

"It was a very happy day," she said.

In January 2008 she underwent more extensive medical testing, which is required to be officially approved as a donor.

Organ donation - A new outlook

When faced with death, one's outlook can change dramatically, causing a person to empathize with others who are in a similar situation. This was the case for Sergeant Shortt. Prior to his diagnosis, he said he would've never considered donating an organ.

"Until this happened to me, my thoughts on organ donations were, 'I came into the world with them, and I was going to leave with them,'" he said.

But now, due to his experience, he said he understands the need for organ donations.

"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," he said. "Everybody should be willing to at least think about [being an organ donor]," he said.

In the United States, more than 100,000 patients are in need of an organ transplant and each month 4,000 people are added to the list, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Because of the lack of available donors, thousands die each year awaiting an organ transplant.

The kidney is the most commonly transplanted organ, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. In fact, more than 400,000 people in the United States are being treated for kidney failure.

For Sergeant Perry, it wasn't a matter of thinking about it; she said it was a matter of how fast she could make it happen.

"I was the one who saw what this was doing to him on a daily basis," said Sergeant Perry, who was taking care of her fiancé and working full-time on base.

"She couldn't wait to get me off dialysis," said Sergeant Shortt, who for a year underwent the four-hour process, three times a week, losing up to 7 pounds in fluid each time, leaving him exhausted from the experience.

"People say I'm a hero, yeah, maybe," said Sergeant Perry, fighting back a flood of emotion while wiping a tear from her eye. "All I know is it's gratifying to be able to help somebody, especially after what he's been through."

The surgery

Their surgeries originally were scheduled for May 12 at John Hopkins. However, they had to be pushed back twice due to a blood infection Sergeant Shortt contracted from dialysis. Following recovery from his illness, their surgeries were rescheduled to September.

The kidney transplant at John Hopkins took about four hours. Sergeant Perry underwent surgery first; her fiancé followed 45 minutes later.

They were released six days after their surgeries.

As for the healing process, Sergeant Shortt said they both experienced a lot of pain immediately after the operation. However, compared to before, he feels 100 percent better.

He said he's free from dialysis, has fewer restrictions on diet and activities and has a lot more energy.

Sergeant Perry is scheduled to return to work in November. Sergeant Shortt, who has 20 years of truck driving experience, is not slated to return to his civilian job or to his military career here due to his medical condition.

The threat of rejection

Although he feels better, the new kidney recipient said he has a long road ahead of him, and there are no guarantees.

"This is a life-time illness. I'll be on medication for the rest of my life," said Sergeant Shortt, who takes 15 medications six times a day.

People who undergo a kidney transplant may reject the new organ. One's immune system sees the new kidney as a foreign substance and tries to destroy it. To prevent this, kidney transplant recipients have to take medicines to suppress their immune response. While the treatment helps prevent organ rejection, it also puts a recipient at a higher risk of infection and cancer.

Despite the challenges of the past couple of years, Sergeants Perry and Shortt said they have learned from the experience and count their blessings.

"We don't know how we would have afforded it, if not for the Air Force's support," Sergeant Perry said. "The surgery was almost $500,000; it costs $1,300 for one of his three anti-rejection drugs; one four-hour session of dialysis costs $4,000; and, he had it done three times a week."

They also had the support of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers throughout their tribulations.

"There are so many people we'd like to thank," said Sergeant Shortt, who mentioned a range of people from their family and the John Hopkins medical staff to the 512th Airlift Wing members and leadership.

Reflecting on his experience, Sergeant Shortt said he now lives every day as if it were his last.

"I'm not going to take anything for granted. I'm going to cherish everything, try to accomplish the most I can every day ... no more putting off until tomorrow what I can do today," he said, glancing affectionately towards his fiancé, gently squeezing her hand. "It says a lot about a person to do what Laura has done for me, and I'm going to take care of her and love her."

While they haven't set a date for their wedding, they said, they now feel more a part of each other than most married people.

"We love one another very much and believe our love and faith in God will see us through," said Sergeant Perry. "And, we'll be able to live a long and happy life with one another." (Air Force Reserve Command News Service)