Soldier celebrates third anniversary of kidney donation from fellow Soldier

Two Virginia National Guard Soldiers celebrated the third anniversary of one donating his kidney to the other June 2, 2014.  Staff Sgt. Michael J. Hughes donated his kidney to Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson, and the two underwent a complicated 15-hour surgery at Walter Reed June 2, 2011, at Walter Reed Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson, Recruiting and Retention Battalion)

Two Virginia National Guard Soldiers celebrated the third anniversary of one donating his kidney to the other June 2, 2014. Staff Sgt. Michael J. Hughes (left) donated his kidney to Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson (right), and the two underwent a complicated 15-hour surgery at Walter Reed June 2, 2011, at Walter Reed Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson, Recruiting and Retention Battalion)

FORT PICKETT, Va. – Two Virginia National Guard Soldiers celebrated the third anniversary of one donating his kidney to the other June 2, 2014.  Staff Sgt. Michael J. Hughes donated his kidney to Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson, and the two underwent a complicated 15-hour surgery at Walter Reed June 2, 2011, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center .

Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson began having back pain in early 2003 following a mobilization to Edgewood Arsenal, Edgewood, Md., in support of Operation Noble Eagle II.

“Initially, I just started having back pains, lots of back pain, and the doctors just kept addressing the back pain issues and they kept giving me medication,” said Ferguson. “Eventually that didn’t seem to work and someone decided to check my creatinine levels and discovered that they were higher than normal.”

Creatinine is a chemical waste molecule that is generated from muscle metabolism. Approximately, two percent of the body’s creatine is converted to creatinine every day.  Creatinine is transported through the bloodstream to the kidneys. The kidneys filter out a majority of the creatinine and dispose of it in the urine.

“Then they sent me to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and at that time they just said that my kidneys were having issues and that was where the pain was coming from” Ferguson said. “The doctors explained that you couldn’t really treat kidneys and that you treated symptoms, so that’s what we did.”

“At the time, I didn’t even tell my family,” Ferguson said.

“I didn’t want anyone to pity me, so it was one of those things,” said Ferguson. “I just went along and I lived my life normal and did everything that I normally did.”

Ferguson was selected to continue his services as an Active Guard Reserve recruiter with the Fort Pickett-based Recruiting and Retention Battalion after demobilization in late 2003.

As the years went on, his kidneys started functioning less and less, he explained. One of the side effects of his kidney pain was chronic fatigue due to a buildup of toxins.

“As the fatigue got worse and worse, I got seen at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth,” Ferguson said. “I got to see a nephrologist and they really took care of me there and truly extended my usefulness as a Soldier- I passed my PT test, I was able to exercise, and stay active.”

“But it got to a point, where the levels just got too high and they put a fistula in, because I was headed towards hemodialysis, which is six-to-eight hours of getting your blood cleaned, then one day of feeling good, then one day of dialysis, so I told the doctors, ‘I’m not going on dialysis,’” said Ferguson.

“We went a long few more weeks and the fatigue got really bad, the doctors would have to give me intravenous bags of iron-rich fluid to keep my energy up,” said Ferguson. “But I was real stubborn, I played on a softball team and played two games a night. I’d play the first game and the toxins would build up, then go to the bathroom and throw up, which would help purge some of the toxins. I’d then play the second game, go home, and throw up again. I just refused to let it control my life.”

“Finally, in January of 2010 the doctors told me that I qualified for the transplant list,” said Ferguson. “It took a barrage of tests up at Walter Reed to make sure that I was even physically able to receive a transplant.”

“At this time, I finally made my family aware of my issues—they appreciated that, “said Ferguson. “And I let the recruiters that I worked with know.”

Two Virginia National Guard Soldiers celebrated the third anniversary of one donating his kidney to the other June 2, 2014.  Staff Sgt. Michael J. Hughes donated his kidney to Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson, and the two underwent a complicated 15-hour surgery at Walter Reed June 2, 2011, at Walter Reed Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson, Recruiting and Retention Battalion)

Two Virginia National Guard Soldiers celebrated the third anniversary of one donating his kidney to the other June 2, 2014. Staff Sgt. Michael J. Hughes (right) donated his kidney to Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson (left), and the two underwent a complicated 15-hour surgery at Walter Reed June 2, 2011, at Walter Reed Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Dennis W. Ferguson, Recruiting and Retention Battalion)

Ferguson explained his medical condition to his fellow recruiters during their unit’s annual training at Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation, Virginia Beach, Va., in June of 2010.

“We were sitting around one night, Sgt. Ferguson was talking to some of the guys that he’d known for a while, and told everyone that he was in stage-four renal failure and that he had been able to get on the transplant list,” described Hughes.

“Something just prompted me to ask ‘Hey Dennis, what blood type are you?’ and he responded, ‘A positive.’ ‘So am I, you can have one of mine,’” said Hughes. “He quickly said no, but I pushed him and said, ‘I’m serious, you can have one of mine.’”

“I tried to be as gracious as I could, but I couldn’t just take this guy’s kidney,” said Ferguson. “I told him that I appreciated his offer, but that I’m on the transplant list so in about a year that I’d be good.’”

“I let it go from there, but afterwards it started weighing heavy on me,” Hughes said. “Am I the one that’s supposed to be helping him out with all of this?”

“As the next month went by, I started thinking about it more and more, and as November and December came and went, I started waking up thinking about it and going to sleep thinking about it and being a religious man, I just prayed,” explained Hughes.

“The next day, I started researching living donor and success rates with kidney donation and the process involved,” said Hughes. “After, I sat down and shot him an e-mail and I asked him to take my kidney.”

Hughes called Ferguson repeatedly and kept asking to donate his kidney. Eventually, Hughes was able to convince Ferguson to allow him to be tested to see if he was even a match. Ferguson reluctantly agreed, but wanted to make the appointment himself.

“I never heard back from him, so I’d call him once a week,” said Hughes. “Eventually, I figured out that he was trying to put me off and so I just called Walter Reed and made the appointment myself.”

Hughes traveled more than 180 miles to Walter Reed to undergo a three-day series of blood tests to determine if he was a match for Ferguson.

“They came back after drawing the 26 vials of blood and told me that they needed to do it again because they thought there was an issue with the machine,” Hughes explained. “So they did it again, and they came back and asked if I was sure that we weren’t related, because I came back a six for six tissue type match.”

Tissue matching is a very complex area of medicine involving testing the similarity of certain proteins, called antigens, between the donor and recipient, which are defined through blood tests. For kidney transplants, doctors look at six of these proteins called major histocompatibility complex or HLA antigens. By analyzing which six or these specific antigens both individuals have, medical professionals are able to determine the closeness of tissue matching. A six-antigen match, meaning that both the donor and recipient have the same set of six antigens, is the best compatibility. According to the National Federation of the Blind, this type of match occurs about 25% of the time between siblings and is incredibly rare among the general population.

“They told me that outside of being identical twin males or first born father-son, it’s medically impossible,” explained Hughes. “I called him (Ferguson) on the way back and told him that I had bad news—I’m a perfect match.”

“At that point, he still wasn’t sold on the idea, that’s just the way he is,” Hughes said.

“I wasn’t sure about it yet, I mean I wouldn’t even let my children test, “Ferguson said. “You’re young, you’re healthy, you are going to live your life, I’m not taking a kidney from you.”

Ferguson and his entire extended family attended a Palm Sunday service with Hughes and his family at their church in Lynchburg, Va.

“His wife was incredibly upbeat about the idea, almost more than he was,” Ferguson explained. “Their faith and their beliefs led them to believe that that was what they were supposed to do.”

During the service, Ferguson heard the pastor preach about letting God take over and letting him carry the burden, described Ferguson. Shortly afterwards, Ferguson spoke to Hughes and informed him that he would let Hughes donate him a kidney.

“It was a huge relief for me, for a couple reasons, the first was that I knew that this was what I was supposed to do and I finally get to do it, and second, Dennis was in bad shape and to know that he has four kids and to do this he was getting a chance to have an extra lease on life,” Hughes said. “It was really exciting, but the funny part was that the only time I was nervous was when he was making up his mind.”

“At that point, it was a huge relief,” Hughes stated.

Hughes requested that his chain of command not publicize that he was undergoing this surgery.

“I really didn’t tell anybody, for whatever reason it didn’t work out or if it did work out, I wasn’t doing it for ‘attaboys’ or anything like that,” explained Hughes. “It was something that I was led to do, the only people that needed to know about it was my chain of command and the people that were involved.”

“My extended family would always come up to me and ask what if my kids needed a kidney sometime down the road, or what it my wife needed one, or what if I got into an accident and needed one,” said Hughes. “So I thought about it and pretty much told them that there were a lot of ‘what if’s’ in life, but I know for a fact that if Dennis doesn’t get a kidney, he’s going to die.”

A few weeks later, on the morning of June 2, 2011, Hughes and Ferguson went into a complicated 15-hour surgery at Walter Reed.

Hughes and Ferguson, along with their wives, were up at 5 a.m. for surgery preparations. Hughes began the kidney removal surgery at 7 a.m. and was brought out of general anesthesia nearly seven and a half hours later. Ferguson began his surgery immediately after the kidney had been removed.

Within four hours, Hughes was back on his feet walking around.

“It did take me a while to get back to 100 percent, doctors said that it could take upwards of 12 months for my kidney to readjust to running all the time and until then everything you do will just drain your energy,” Hughes explained. “Ten days later, I was hitting balls on the golf course.”

Ferguson healed quickly, but remained at Walter Reed for post-operation observation and additional testing. He was released 90 days after the surgery.

“His gift affected a lot of lives in the long run. Without him life would have been living on dialysis. Some people live a long time, some don’t, but the quality of life is what counts,” said Ferguson.

“I never looked at it is as a sacrifice, I’ve gotten a completely new family,” said Hughes. “Granted, he got a new kidney, but I got so much more.”

In August 2011, Hughes was awarded the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States’ Humanitarian Medal which recognizes any individual in the National Guard that was involved in saving or attempting to save a life beyond the requirements of duty.

Both Soldiers are actively serving as recruiters for the Virginia Army National Guard.