Diary

Veterans Helping Veterans

vets helping vets

For a moment, I was speechless, stunned into silence.

“Hello? Are you still there?”  I heard my brother’s anxious voice in my ear.

“Yes, yes, I’m here,” I replied. “I’m just—are you sure you’ve thought this through?”

“Of course I’m sure,” he answered, a little impatiently. Softening, he continued, “I’ve talked this over with Diana and she’s on board.  I have to do this.”

Still resisting, I pressed him: “Why?”

“Because,” he said, “it’s the right thing to do.”

We ended our call with the usual exchange of “Love you.”

I turned off my Bluetooth and sighed.

Once an Army Ranger, I thought wryly, always an Army Ranger.

***

Air Force Major Ralph “Loose” Cannon was newly-married and at the top of his game. Loose was a big guy, just shy of six feet tall, and 220 pounds of lean, mean fighting machine.  He loved running, swimming, and lifting weights.  His 9-to-5 grind with the Air Force was the stuff dreams were made of—the high-tech world of space satellites, and situation rooms right out of a Hollywood movie.  A true renaissance man, Loose was a classically-trained pianist.

He never imagined that a routine dental exam in March 2008 would set into motion a series of events that would result in a virtual death sentence.

The dentist aborted the examination when he took Loose’s blood pressure and the reading was 200 over 150. Loose was advised to immediately seek medical attention and diagnostic testing to determine the source of his dangerously-high blood pressure.

***

Cheerful and optimistic by nature, Loose waited in the doctor’s office to discuss his test results. He was certain that whatever inconvenience might be posed by some lifestyle changes and medication, he would simply make those changes and get on with his life.  After all, he was young, strong, and healthy.

The doctor entered the office and closed the door. Seating himself behind the desk, he opened the folder containing the test results.  “Major Cannon,” he said carefully, “Your renal biopsy confirms that you have a type of autoimmune disorder that specifically targets the kidneys.  It’s called Berger’s Disease, or IgA nephropathy.”  Pausing delicately, he continued, “Even with medication and lifestyle changes, your kidneys are likely to fail in about two years.  Your treatment options at that time will be dialysis, a transplant, or possibly both.  At this time, we do not know the cause of Berger’s Disease, and, unfortunately, there is no known cure.”

Loose took the news in stride. He had just gotten married.  He had a successful career, with a promotion on the horizon.  He was only thirty-three.  There had to be some mistake.

There was no mistake, but the grim reality of the situation would take a few years to sink in.

Determined to defeat the reaper, Loose undertook rigorous lifestyle changes, such as reducing the amount of protein in his diet and increasing his intake of omega fatty acids. Those changes, along with numerous medications, allowed him to function, albeit at a low quality of life, for the next five years.

His life became a rollercoaster of victories and losses. The Air Force had no use for a “broken” warrior, even though he could still perform his duties.  Shortly after his diagnosis, Loose was compelled to accept a medical retirement.  The son of an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, his dream of emulating his father’s achievements was completely shattered.

He was overjoyed when he and his wife Lannita welcomed daughter Nicolette and then son Alexander into their family, but his thoughts were tortured: Who would walk his sweet girl down the aisle when the time came?  Who would do “guy things” with his son?  How much time did he have left?  How could he possibly plan a future for his wife and children when he might not be there to see it?

By 2014, the toxins which had been building up since his diagnosis in 2008 had reached critical levels and dialysis was necessary to keep him alive. His body was effectively poisoning itself.

With the threat of dialysis looming, he was cleared to be placed on the national organ donation registry and to seek live donors. This is by far the best option available to kidney failure patients.  Usually, family members are the first line of defense in such situations.  Unfortunately, Loose’s parents and his older sister were deceased.  He needed to cast a wide net among friends and colleagues.

Hoping for the best, he sent a global e-mail to about 150 recipients, outlining his situation.

Twenty courageous, selfless souls stepped up and agreed to be tested to see if they were viable candidates for kidney donation. The transplant surgeons narrowed the field down to the best match.

That guy? My brother, Colonel John D. Vernon, U.S. Army (Ret.).

John (“JV” to his military colleagues) and Loose served together at Yokota Air Force Base in U.S. Forces Japan. In addition to being military co-workers, JV and Loose became close friends.  They challenged each other regularly in tests of physical endurance as they worked out together.  As Deputy Director, Operations Directorate (J3), JV had the honor of presiding at Loose’s promotion to Major and pinning on his oak leaves.

Loose promotion

Working as a civilian after his retirement from active duty military service, JV had survived multiple combat situations and safely returned home to the arms of his family. We ordinary folk would say that he had already cheated death several times, and that no additional tempting of the fates was required.  He had served his country honorably, and had shown himself willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.  A little selfishness could hardly be criticized, right?

Well, JV had other ideas. In 1981, he graduated from Ranger School, and then served in a Ranger Unit from 1989 to 1993. The Ranger Creed became his way of life.

The Ranger Creed says, in part: “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy…”  To my brother, Loose was a fallen comrade, and the enemy was death and disease.

I should not have been surprised when he called me with the news that he would donate a kidney to a friend in need.

JV traveled to Denver and met with the transplant team. He underwent various tests.  The doctors wanted him to lose 10-20 pounds.  Upon returning to his home in Virginia, JV immediately began a clean eating regimen and he intensified his running workouts in order to increase his fitness and stamina.  By the time the surgery date arrived, he had lost 35 pounds.

JV and his wife, Diana, flew to Denver just before the surgery date.  Together with Loose and his family, JV and Diana spent a few days enjoying the sights and attractions of Denver in the summer.

symbol JV & Loose family 2

Early on the morning of Tuesday, July 7, 2015, JV and Loose arrived at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado Medical Center in Aurora. Both men desiring to stack the deck in their favor, they came bearing gifts:  doughnuts for the floor staff, and a bottle of Maker’s 46 for the surgeon!  Hundreds of people were actively engaged in prayer for both men.

JV went into the recovery room at approximately 11:00 AM MDT, and Loose followed him to the recovery room about three hours later.

Both guys posed for a photo on July 8th, the day following surgery.  I was concerned when I saw the photo.  Loose was standing, and he looked great, but JV was reclined in his hospital bed and he looked like you-know-what on toast.  It turns out that he felt as bad as he looked.

JV & Loose hosp

In spite of post-surgical pain, Loose was very encouraged by how much better he felt, and the kidney “took” superbly. He was discharged to an Air Force buddy’s home in Aurora on Friday, July 10th.

In the meantime, JV experienced a medical setback, which was an unanticipated reaction to the anesthesia. His discharge from the hospital was delayed until he could eat something reasonably solid and keep it down.  The combination of dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and the stress to the surgical incision from vomiting was the reason he felt so awful.  Another call for prayer went out. Once anti-nausea meds were administered, he brightened considerably and was discharged less than twenty-four hours later, on July 11th.

JV stayed in Aurora for about two weeks so that his condition could continue to be monitored post-surgery. He continued to recover rapidly at home and returned to work shortly thereafter.

Despite all indications to the contrary, Loose wasn’t out of the woods—yet.

Loose bunked with his buddy in Aurora after the transplant because his home was a two-hour drive from the clinic, and he needed to appear daily for monitoring. In addition, the anti-rejection cocktail he was given further suppressed his immune system.  With small children at home, even a sniffle could result in deadly infection.

About two weeks following the surgery, Loose experienced excruciating abdominal pain and nausea. He managed to get through the night, but by first light he was in the emergency room.  The pain was directly over the location of his new kidney, and he was terrified to think that the kidney might be failing.  He described his agony as akin to a four-inch dagger being thrust into his abdomen and twisted.  Morphine was administered but it didn’t put a dent in his pain.  The doctors needed to conduct a CAT scan, but Loose was writhing in pain.  Finally, the doctor injected a powerful pain-killing drug that allowed Loose to lie still enough for the CAT scan to render clear images.

Loose had a perforated appendix. This post-transplant complication is so rare that it happens less than 1% of the time.  His white blood cell count had been creeping up after his surgery, but the prednisone administered post-surgery was believed to be the cause because of its immunosuppressant effects.

The doctor gave him the bad news (there was no good news at this juncture). “You have an inflamed appendix, and it needs to be removed.  You are so immuno-suppressed that surgery carries a significant risk.  However, if your appendix bursts, you will die.”

Loose considered his options and decided to take the risk. Let’s go for it, he said.

His surgeon replied, “We will be real careful and hope for the best.”

On July 21st, the inflamed appendix was removed and all leaked matter was successfully extracted.

After having endured two major surgeries, Loose’s gastrointestinal tract simply shut down. There was no peristalsis.  He could neither swallow nor eliminate.  Two days later, tests showed that his intestines had swollen considerably and it was feared that a colostomy would be required.

The doctors inserted a nasogastric tube while Loose was conscious. Then he was heavily sedated, catheterized, and had two drains and two IVs inserted.  The entire digestive tract was flushed from top to bottom.  Gases were vented by tube.

Prayer chains lit up across the globe.

After several days, Loose’s GI tract resumed normal function. The donated kidney was still working perfectly and doing its job.  By this time, Loose had not had food or liquids for eight days!  He was eager to progress from liquids, to Jell-O, to pudding, and finally to crackers.  He returned to his buddy’s house to recuperate.  For five or six days he was very weak, but he bounced back rapidly.

Today, Loose says he is a new man.  His medical appointments can be handled by his local nephrologist.  His new kidney continues to function perfectly.  His blood tests and other lab results are typical of a healthy 40-year-old man.  He drinks 108 ounces of water each day.  He is working out at the gym and has resumed running and swimming.  He recently returned to work as a Department of Defense contractor doing cool Star Wars things.  His wife is thrilled to have her husband back, God willing, for many years to come.  Loose has resumed taking his children on hikes and to the park.  “I haven’t felt this good for eight long years,” Loose says, “and I thank JV with all my heart.”

Speaking of JV, his recovery as a donor has been rapid and, other than the initial reaction to the anesthesia post-surgery, there have been no issues or complications. The last time I talked with him on the phone, he had just returned from a seven-mile run.

JV runner

The world at large does not realize the import of this story of two men. The boy from Houston did not know the boy who grew up on a remote Pennsylvania homestead.  The Air Force space geek did not rub elbows with the Ranger School grad who also happens to be a Civil War history buff.  Somehow, time and circumstance conspired to place them together in Japan, worlds away from their respective hometowns.

It’s a fact that most living-donor transplants are between family members. What, then, inspired JV to do this?  In this case and in many, many others, the system that sends our men and women to war does not take care of them when they have apparently “outlived their usefulness.”  Lives and dreams are ripped apart.  Veterans take their own lives.  Cannon fodder, indeed.  Any sense of honor that exists is only among the men and women who serve together.  Honor is completely absent in the big governmental machine that sends them to war and then cuts their budgets and benefits.  The government and its agencies kick our veterans to the curb, telling them to find their own way when hearts, minds, or bodies have been shattered.

As a civilian, I have only an outsider’s intellectual understanding of what it means to “never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.” Death and disease were the enemies to be faced, but upon reflection, I think there was a third enemy present on that day:  a government that abandons its veterans.  I think JV saw that particular sniper in the tree, too.  I think that is among the reasons he chose to step forward to volunteer for this mission.  “Veterans Helping Veterans,” I call it.

We need leaders who will do more than simply place a wreath on a grave on Veterans’ Day while forgetting our veterans for the other 364 days of the year. We civilians need to step up, as well. Henceforth, let us resolve to show our gratitude with more than mere words, each according to our means.

In the meantime, to our veterans, I would say this: Brothers and sisters, if those who summoned you to our service fail you, do not wait in despair for help that will not come.  Instead, call upon the warrior bond to reach out and help one another wherever you see a need.  Together, you cannot fall.  Together, no one will be left behind.

P.S. JV and Loose intend to get together again on the one-year anniversary of the transplant surgery.  I’ve been invited to come along.  I can’t wait to meet my new baby brother.  –Cathleen P. Vernon

Cathleen Vernon works full-time for a Pittsburgh law firm. She enjoys writing, photography, music, gardening, and the great outdoors.  She edited and laid out the manuscript and artwork for Col. Vernon’s recent book, “Angels Watching Over Me” (Amazon 2014), and she developed the concept for the trailer that appears on the American Warrior Press website (www.americanwarriorpress.com).