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The gift of a kidney bolsters bond between classmates

West Point classmates Chris Connelly (left) and Air Force Col. Dave Ashley feel well enough to pose for a photo the day after Ashley donated a kidney to Connelly. (Courtesy photo) West Point classmates Chris Connelly (left) and Air Force Col. Dave Ashley feel well enough to pose for a photo the day after Ashley donated a kidney to Connelly. (Courtesy photo)

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Air Force Col. Dave Ashley’s schedule since May included climbing a mountain; completing a 40-mile trail run; competing in a multiday athletic event that included bicycling and kayaking; and achieving a perfect score on his military physical fitness test, his seventh in a row.

Ashley accomplished all of these feats after donating a kidney. And what began as an impulse to help a desperately ill former classmate has turned into a campaign to make sure other service members know the Military Health System supports those who want to become living organ donors.

“I worried I might get pushback because I’m an active-duty, senior officer,” Ashley said. “But I received outstanding help from my flight doc and the entire medical chain of command as I went through the process.”

According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 100,000 people in the United States are on the waiting list for a kidney donation. For many, time runs out. On average, 13 people die each day while waiting for a kidney transplant, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services data.

Chris Connelly was close to becoming part of that statistic. The U.S. Military Academy graduate and five-year veteran of the 101st Airborne Division was in seemingly excellent health until the fall of 2015.

“I’d been gradually gaining weight, and my legs were swollen,” said Connelly, who works in the financial services industry in New York. “I couldn’t figure out why because I ate healthy and exercised regularly. I’d had a physical six months earlier, and everything was fine.”

During a weekend at West Point with his wife and young son, a walk on a campus trail left him struggling for breath and nauseated. After returning home, he went to his physician’s office. Blood tests showed high creatine levels. Creatine is a chemical waste byproduct of normal muscle function, and usually is filtered by the kidneys and eliminated through urine. High levels in the blood indicate kidney damage or disease.

Connelly’s doctor recommended he make an appointment with a kidney specialist. But that night, he went into a seizure and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

“That’s when I found out I had complete and total kidney failure,” Connelly said.

Discharged a week later, he began dialysis, the process of removing toxins and excess water from the blood by machine. It was a grueling schedule: five hours a day, three days a week.

Connelly was a candidate for a kidney transplant, but his parents and two sisters weren’t medically eligible to donate. The wait for a deceased donor kidney was seven years.

By March, Connelly was back in the hospital for two weeks with a life-threatening blood infection. After recovering, “I decided I needed to prepare my family for a future without me.”

He moved with his wife and son to his hometown of Plymouth, Mass., continuing dialysis while teleworking for his New York firm when he felt well enough. Meantime, two West Point friends suggested posting a notice about living organ donation on the Class of 1997’s closed group Facebook page.

“I said absolutely not,” Connelly said. “Our class had already been through so much. Too many had died in battle in Iraq or Afghanistan or come home with missing limbs, or had suffered other significant hardships. I didn’t want to be out there asking for something like this.”

His friends did it anyway.

“I knew who Chris was, but we hadn’t kept in touch after graduation,” said Ashley, then a staff officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who learned about Connelly’s condition from the Facebook post. “Still, the brotherly bond coming from a service academy is strong.”

“I thought the odds of me being a match were probably pretty slim,” Ashley said. “But getting tested seemed like the right thing to do.”

Transplant coordinators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston sent Ashley a testing kit. Ashley asked Col. John Oh, his physician at the Pentagon Flight Medicine Clinic, to help him complete and return it. Oh is also chief of preventive medicine for the Air Force Medical Support Agency at Defense Health Headquarters.

“I did the first test, and then a second one, and then another one,” Ashley said. “It got to the point where I finally asked how many people were still involved in the testing process and they said, just me. That’s when I thought, oh, boy, I’d better talk with my wife.”

He also needed official permission from the military. Service members who want to become living organ donors must submit a package of documents for approval after they’ve been matched with a recipient. Army and Navy service members’ requests go to the Army Surgeon General’s Office. Ashley’s request package was coordinated through the Air Force Medical Operations Agency for review and approval.

The request package must include a letter from the potential donor’s commander granting permission, and a letter from the donor’s primary care physician asserting the potential donor is in excellent health and has been advised of any risks. Those risks include complications after the surgery that might limit or even end military service.

“I thought he’d be a really good candidate because he was in excellent health,” Oh said. “And I wrote that I was honored to do this for him.”

Connelly didn’t know he was getting a transplant until early December 2016, when the transplant coordinator called to say not only had a match been found, but the donor was a former classmate. Did Connelly want to know who the donor was? Of course he did.

“I immediately recognized the name ‘Dave Ashley,’ and I could even put a face to it,” Connelly said. “West Point cadets remember their classmates – especially those few who branch Air Force.”

The transplant surgery took place in January. “I felt pretty rough afterward,” Ashley said. “It took about six weeks before I was able to go into work and stay most of the day and focus.”

After several months, Ashley began easing back into his fitness routine as well.

“Sure, there’s a short-term impact to you physically,” said Ashley, senior materiel leader for the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program office at Los Angeles Air Force Base. “But I feel completely recovered now. I’m doing all the things I was doing before the surgery.”

Oh notes that when someone donates a kidney, the overall kidney function doesn’t drop by half. Instead, the remaining organ compensates for the loss. “Your body adapts,” he said.

As for Connelly, “I’m doing great, and I feel outstanding,” he said. He’s resumed swimming, running, and working, and has returned to New York with his wife and son.

 “Being a living donor genuinely saves lives,” Connelly said. “Dave effectively saved my life – and also made a really positive difference for my wife and my child.”

“In the Air Force we talk about our core values: Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do,” Oh said. “I think someone who donates a kidney is personifying those core values.”

“I would encourage folks that if becoming a living donor is something you want to do, don’t think of military service as a reason why you couldn’t do it.”

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