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Sacrifice: A Gift of Hope

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

Twenty-five years ago, Nathan Munson, father of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicholas Munson, 27th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron fuels distribution supervisor, was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease.

IgA nephropathy is a kidney disease that occurs when an antibody called immunoglobulin A (IgA) builds up in the kidneys. This results in local inflammation that, over time, can hamper your kidneys' ability to filter waste from your blood. One of his kidneys slowly filled with scar tissue, leaving the other to work twice as hard.

As the years carried on, his condition got worse. He was constantly visiting the doctors, who told him that his kidney was slowly dying. In 2018, he was diagnosed with kidney failure. One of his kidneys was unable to do its job, so he had to start dialysis to compensate.

“When I found out, it was pretty emotional,” said Nathan Munson. “I had never really gotten sick as a kid. But then one day I felt extremely ill. So I went to the hospital, they sent me home, and then I went back, they checked again, and then I went a third time. I didn’t know how else to describe it, but I told them that something inside me just wasn’t working. I was only 30 years old, but my kidney function was down to 25%. And when I got started on dialysis, five years ago, it was down to 7%. It took that long for it to drop that last 18%.”

At age two, Nicholas grew up with his father dealing with a debilitating illness. He watched his father go to a monthly appointment to observe the slowly declining status of his kidney, knowing that his father would eventually die.

“It’s something you don’t really think of a ton as a kid,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Munson. “I felt oblivious to it for a while because it wasn’t new to me. It wasn’t until October of 2020 that I wanted to move back to Cannon. It was to help my dad, be closer to my kids, and it was then I decided I was going to force him to take a kidney.”

While stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Nicholas was unable to help his father. Nathan was doing peritoneal dialysis at home, where he had dialysate run through his body to help filter waste. But he had over one ton of the fluid delivered to his house every month, and he was unable to move it. To help his father overcome challenges brought on by the illness, Nicholas requested a humanitarian assignment to Cannon. While Nicholas did plan to help his father move, he already looking in how to give a gift quite like no other.

“Me and my brother always talked about donating a kidney to our dad, but I really wanted make it a reality,” said Nicholas. “Once I started doing research on how to donate a kidney, I set up an appointment with my primary care manager. When I asked her ‘can I donate a kidney?’ they honestly didn’t have an answer. So, about a week later, she reached out to me and let me know it was something I could do. I started getting whatever paperwork I had to do together.”

After receiving the email, Nicholas reached out to a transplant center in Denver, Colorado. He had to fill out paperwork to pre-qualify for the surgery, then drive out to the center to get screened to see if he was an eligible donor and if he was fit enough to donate at all. Once approved at the center, he had to find a date for the surgery that would work not only with the transplant center, but also his unit.

“Once I got a solid date down, that’s where the rest of the paperwork really came into play,” Nicholas said. “I had to submit paperwork because this was an elective surgery. I made multiple appointments with our TriCare office so I could figure out what paperwork I had to submit. Then I had to submit it to my leadership, and my commander was willing to approve it. Then I had to submit it through the 27th Special Operations Medical Group. But once it was all approved, only about two weeks out from the date of the surgery, we could finally start looking for places to stay while we were out there.”

Nicholas had been keeping his father in the dark about his plan until he had approval to submit.

“It was only about a year ago that he even presented the idea to me,” said Nathan. “By the time I heard about it, he had already gotten tests run and was approved to donate. It took a lot of convincing because, while I haven’t lived a very long time, I didn’t want my son to have a shorter lifespan because of me. But eventually everyone convinced me it was okay, and the chance of him having a problem like mine was slim to none.”

Once out in Colorado for their appointment, the Munson family stayed in short-term lodging. Everything was moving as planned until a day before the surgery, when the doctors found blood in Nathan’s lung.

“The surgery was supposed to be May 1, 2022, but it got canceled on April 30th,” said Nathan. “I had gone in to get one last check-up. They were running test on me, and my lungs were surrounded by fluid. That happens sometimes with my dialysis, but they started draining it and it was bloody. They won’t let you go through with the surgery if there’s a risk of infection because afterwards, you don’t really have an immune system to speak of. They brought in everybody to try and figure it out, but no one could. So I was taken off the donor list entirely.”

After a year of planning and getting housing established, the delay in May postponed the operation. It took until November of the same year for Nathan to even get accepted back on to the donor list again.

“From the moment the surgery got canceled, I had to wait for him to get approved to receive the organ again,” Nicholas said. “I was calling him every week asking ‘Have you heard yet? Have you heard yet?’ and as soon as he did, I pulled up all the paperwork I had saved. I had to resubmit everything again, redoing all the forms from before to match the new date.”

Finally, November 8th, 2022, the Munson family gathered in Denver so Nicholas could donate his kidney to his father and change both of their lives.

“Leading up to the day of, I was so excited,” Nicholas said. “Every day I got excited because I was helping my dad, I got to help him out. When the doctor told me the risk leading up, it felt like in one ear out the other because I was going to do the surgery no matter what. The day of the surgery, however, I was absolutely terrified. In the surgery room, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m sitting there sweating bullets until the anesthesiologist showed up. I was terrified, but I knew I was still going to do it.”

According to Nicholas, his father was extremely excited across the hall. After multiple surgeries to accommodate his illness, Nathan didn’t feel the same anxiety as his son. He was elated to take the first step to the rest of his life.

While Nicholas was able to go home only days after the surgery, his father had to stay behind for 30 days to ensure there were no further developments or issues with the transplant. The medical team had to make sure the kidney would properly graft, so that all the efforts of professionals and family wouldn’t go to waste.

“That was one of the scariest things,” Nathan said. “While I’m lying there waiting, there was this very real chance the kidney might not work. I was scared we went through all these challenges just for it to all fail.”

Luckily, the kidney was working not long after Nathan had woken up. His son’s gift was working, and so when Nicholas left to go home, his dad gave his own gift of hope.

“The most heartwarming thing about the whole experience is that when my family went back home, he sent his dialysis machine with us,” Nicholas said. “Usually, he always has that thing with him. It’s like second nature to him. And when he was able to send that back with me, it felt nice knowing he didn’t need to use it anymore. That it all worked out in the end.”

Nicholas’s sacrifice brought his father’s constant fight with his disease and medical supplies to an end.

“It’s been life changing for me not just from a health standpoint, but from a logistics of life standpoint,” Nathan said. “When you do dialysis at home, you must take the machine with you if you travel. Each box of fluid weighs close to 50 pounds, and you have to take a day’s worth on the airplane and have to ship the rest to where you’re going. And I travel a lot for work. Every time I had to go with four carry-ons because it’s all life-sustaining. I couldn’t even imagine going back on dialysis anymore.”

While it’s easy to say anyone would make this kind of sacrifice for a parent, Nicholas felt dedicated to keeping his father alive to make sure he could be a grandfather.

“One of the most important conversations I had with my dad, to make him agree to the surgery, was that he had three grandkids,” Nicholas said. “I got to grow up with my grandparents. I learned so much from my grandparents and I still do. I needed my dad to stay around for his grandkids so they can have the same opportunity.”

For nearly half of his life, Nathan Munson had been living with a disease that not only affected his health, but his life. His sons grew up knowing their dad was sick, and while they wanted to do something to help, it seemed like too large a challenge. But with the help of his command team and medical providers, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Munson was able to donate a kidney and ensure his dad would be able to watch his grandchildren grow up.

“It’s extremely possible to do this kind of surgery through the Air Force,” Nathan said. “Before I had never even heard of any Airman going through this kind of surgery. But the information is out there, and you can get these kinds of things approved. It was a process, but if everyone who knew someone on dialysis knew, I think a lot of lives could be changed.”

If you or someone you know is interested in donating a kidney or organ, contact your primary care manager or your TriCare office.