Sister before self

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Kay M. Nissen
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Author's Note: This article was originally published Nov. 28, 2012. Due to significant interest in the outcome of the story, updates have been added for its completion.

The day he found out about his sister's condition, he knew he would go through any lengths necessary to help her.

In December 2012, Tech. Sgt. Simon Garcia, 1st Communications Maintenance Squadron project manager, entered the operating room for an elective procedure - kidney transplant.

"I was notified about it and immediately I knew it was probably going to be me (who would be a match), I don't know why or how, so I started the process," he said in an interview prior to the surgery.

Garcia knew there would be some special considerations about organ donation in the Air Force so he began researching.

"I've never known anyone who had to go through the process of being a match. It was a big learning curve for me and my leadership," said the veteran cable dog. "(I) heard some rumors, or people's minimal experience with the process ... in the beginning it was daunting, but the more and more I dug with DoD policies and working my way down, everything (the policies) say is without coercion they encourage people to be donors whether that (is) blood or organs or bone marrow."

While in Germany, Garcia began medical tests "in correspondence." He underwent procedures locally like DNA tests and CT scans, and sent results for analysis where his sister was being treated.

He also received some outside help when his commander put him in contact with two wing commanders at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, who had also gone through the process of preparing for a kidney donation.

"We reached out to (the wing commanders) and they emailed Sgt. Garcia back and encouraged him," said Maj. Angela Freeman, 1st CMXS commander.

"From the time I let my leadership know, they were on board with it and were fully supportive. I'm thankful for that," said Garcia, recalling Freeman's actions and also how his first sergeant had even walked around the base hospital asking questions for more information.

Through his persistence, Garcia was able to find a source who could guide him through the entire process when he met Senior Master Sgt. Jessica Dunn, 86th Medical Support Squadron TRICARE operations and patient administration flight superintendent.

"(Dunn) was able to answer a lot of questions and point me in the right direction," said Garcia.

Although this was Dunn's first time encountering a request for kidney donation, she was able to assist Garcia with the approval process up to the Air Force Medical Operations Agency.

"AFMOA oversees the execution of the Air Force Surgeon General policy," said Dunn. "My role is to ensure the member receives the appropriate AFIs and guidance...and make sure all the information that I can foresee the reviewing authority may ask (is available)."

According to the office of the Air Force Surgeon General, there are approximately 10 organ donation requests per year, which are approved through AFMOA. However, approval to undergo the procedure does not excuse Airmen from potential risks to their health or career.

"I counseled (Garcia) about the elective treatment and his subsequent ineligibility for disability compensation for any adverse residuals incurred secondary to the elective treatment," said Dunn. "If he's on a long-term profile, he may need to go through the medical evaluation board."

Garcia was expected to have a full recovery, but he knew risks were still a factor. With the possibility of complications resulting in removal from the military, the 15-year technical sergeant was steadfast in his decision to press forward with the procedure.

"My primary focus right now is my sister, so I mean (my career) kind of comes second," he said approximately a month prior to surgery. "I've been (in the military) going on 15 (years) so if it's time for me to make a change, then its time."

The surgery took place as scheduled with Evelyn Garcia's body accepting her little brother's kidney as its own.

"Surgery went about as smooth as one can pray for," said Garcia in a recent interview. "I received the news immediately as I came to. I remember asking how she was ... however I was too medicated to absorb the good news ... I knew by faith that it was going to work out."

His sister expressed a similar story.

"When I woke up I was struggling to get that mask off because I wanted to know how my brother was doing. That's the first thing I asked after I was able to get the words out," said Evelyn. "The only thing about all this is that I didn't want my baby brother to do this, because he was young and had a family to tend to and because he's my little brother. I'm supposed to be the one there for him, not the other way around.

"But it's like he told me, 'would you have done it for me?' and without missing a beat I replied to him, 'Yes!' Because that's what you do for your brothers and sisters. I guess we are made from the same cloth."

Since the surgery, Garcia has accomplished what he set as his goal three months ago; getting his sister better and returning back to work, now at his new duty station at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.

"I have since resumed most of my daily physical activities, and as far as work; I can do everything I did before," said Garcia.

Both brother and sister say the experience has helped them maintain perspective on challenges in life.

"I feel the same as I did before about the surgery," said Garcia. "Try and not dwell over trivial issues and cherish those you love because their life can come to an end in the blink of an eye."

"I look at life differently. I am blessed and tend to take things more slowly than before," said Evelyn. "I guess you can say I'm enjoying life more and seeing things more clearly."

The technical sergeant extended his thanks to his wife for her care, his former medical care provider, the 86th Medical Group, as well as members of the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing to include the 1st CMXS and their squadron commander.

Evelyn was grateful to the medical team who performed the surgery, but mostly she thanked her brother.

"I love my baby brother and that has never changed; I will always love him, but there are no words for what he has done for me," she said. "We were bonded by blood before, but now even more so. We are bonded forevermore, a literal piece of him lives in me now ... Thank you, my little brother, Simon Peter."

For others who may face the decision or challenges coming with an organ donation, Garcia offers his story and this advice: "I encourage those that are thinking of doing this to definitely do your research, and contact me if you have any questions ... I will do my best to share my experience with you to help you make your decision. I pray that you have the same support I had throughout this process ... Stay adamant and stay patient. It'll work itself out."

For more information on the organ donation process, consult Air Force Instruction 41-210, par. 2.53; AFI 44-102, par. 6.12; TRICARE Policy Manual section 7.1, chapter 1; TPM section 24.8, chapter 4; and TPM section 24.9, chapter 4.