Spouse gives Moody Airman 'gift of life'

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman S.I. Fielder
  • 347th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
When it seemed like all options were exhausted and an Air Force career was about to end, the impossible happened. One Team Moody NCO had a second chance after receiving the "gift of life." 

The medical discharge process had already begun, when Tech. Sgt. Matt Ryan found out his wife Jovelyn was a perfect match to donate a kidney. 

"At first, I really didn't want a live donor, especially from my family or friends," said Sergeant Ryan, 347th Communications Squadron information technology project manager. "I just didn't want anyone close to me to have to go through the risk of surgery and the side effects they may encounter in the future. 

"However, Jovelyn and I discussed all the options available, and she decided she really wanted to do it," he said. 

When Sergeant Ryan first found himself on the waiting list for a transplant, he felt highly discouraged. The average waiting time for a transplant is between two to four years, he said. 

"I was also told the average life span of a cadaver kidney would be 10 to 15 years once transplanted into my body," said Sergeant Ryan, 32. "The average life span of a live donor, however, would be 15 to 25 years. Hopefully by the time I need another kidney, the technology will have improved. 

"I didn't realize how many people in the world are affected by kidney disease until I was diagnosed," he said. "I found out millions of people are affected, and they also have to go through similar situations in their lives." 

It was four years ago when Sergeant Ryan was first told the life-changing news. He went to see a doctor with what he thought was food poisoning. After several tests, the doctor's diagnosed him with IgA nephropathy, he said. 

The disease, also known as "Berger's Disease," causes the kidneys to progressively lose the ability to clear wastes from the body, according to the National Kidney Foundation's Web site. Although the cause of the disease is not well understood, 20 to 40 percent of the people diagnosed develop end-stage kidney failure, which is when the kidneys lose almost all function. 

"At first it wasn't really a big deal," said Sergeant Ryan, concerning the diagnosis. "Then, it just all of a sudden hit me. I didn't think of it as a death sentence, but I did realize it would change my life." 

As the disease progressed, it began to affect him physically. Although he received support from his family and co-workers at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where he was stationed at the time, the lack of kidney function took away things in his life he once took for granted. 

"I enjoy sports and noticed the changes in my life style as I started to lose more of my kidney function," said the NCO who crosstrained from civil engineering. 

After transferring to Moody in September 2004, complications began to arise in Sergeant Ryan's life. He said he woke up one morning with his vision almost completely gone. An eye specialist said it was due to his elevated blood pressure, a symptom of the disease.
"Due to the severity of the disease's effects, the doctors put me on convalescent leave," said Sergeant Ryan. "I was physically still able to do my job, but the dialysis robbed me of my energy." 

In the meantime, paperwork was submitted for a possible medical discharge and kidney transplant. Staff Sgt. Laura Blea, a co-worker and close friend, and Mrs. Ryan were tested to find out if they were possible matches. 

"I'm adopted, so I don't really have any family to be tested," said the sergeant who enjoys spending his spare time with his daughter Wisdom, 10, who lives in Florida. "Sergeant Blea was a match, but my wife ended up being a better match." 

When Mrs. Ryan found out she could donate her kidney, she was ecstatic. 

"It felt great to know I could donate a kidney to him," she said. "Now, everything has gone back to normal. It doesn't feel like I even had an operation." 

The operation, performed Aug. 11 at the Piedmont Transplant Clinic in Atlanta, had a much different effect on Sergeant Ryan. Although he was excited, he said he was also nervous because of possible complications. 

"I was really tired after the surgery, which was an obvious side effect," said Sergeant Ryan, who's been married to Jovelyn for four years. "I am, however, the type of person who doesn't like to be tied down due to injuries. Everyone kept telling me to take it easy and it would take time to fully recover, but I did not want to sit around feeling sorry for myself. 

"The transplant has definitely made us a lot closer," he said. "Jovelyn jokes the kidney she gave me is still hers, so she makes sure I take care of myself." 

However, after the surgery, the couple couldn't easily attend to their daily needs. So during those first three weeks after the transplant, two fellow co-workers - Cindy Luke and Kathy Lane - spearheaded a project to have different volunteers in the squadron bring food to the Ryan's house each day. 

"All the people who stopped by the house really helped us out in their own way," said Sergeant Ryan. "Maj. (Robert) Borja, (347th CS commander), was new to Moody and didn't really know the whole story. 

"However, that didn't stop him from stepping right in to provide the same level of support to my family," he said. "My whole squadron really went above and beyond." 

Although Sergeant Ryan is still not deployable, he hopes the medical board allows him to continue his career. 

"It will take a few more months of tests to determine whether or not my body rejects the kidney," said the sergeant who also wants to finish his bachelor's degree in organizational security management. "I hope I will be able to retire as at least a master sergeant within the next five years. I'm glad to finally be back at work." 

Not only has Sergeant Ryan been getting back into the swing of things at work, but he began working out again. He does light jogging and weight lifting. 

"I know my limits, and I am taking it pretty easy on myself," said Sergeant Ryan. "Since I have been diagnosed, I try to be a more positive person and not let the little things bother me. 

"The whole situation definitely made me think about my life as a whole," said the sergeant who currently takes 33 pills a day to keep his body from rejecting the new kidney. "It made me work toward my goals faster instead of procrastinating."