Airman donates kidney to mother, saves life

  • Published
  • By Samuel King Jr.
  • Team Eglin Public Affairs
Twenty-six years ago, Airman 1st Class Chris Simmons' mother gave her son the gift of life. On May 17, he returned the favor.

Felita Simmons, who'd been on dialysis due to kidney disease, finally found a donor match in her youngest son, Chris. After a two-year process, he literally saved his mother's life by donating his left kidney to her.

"I've had 13 surgeries to aid with dialysis," said the mother of two, who also suffers from diabetes. "This was the last one."

For Airman Simmons, who works with the 96th Logistics Readiness Squadron here, the decision to help his mother in this way wasn't a choice at all.

"It's my mom -- she gave me my life," said the Airman. "It's the least I could do. If I could reproduce more kidneys, I'd make sure she could have two."

The donation process began in May 2009 on his first trip home after joining the Air Force. Airman Simmons, a newly-trained vehicle mechanic, was set to ship out to his first duty station in Germany, but not before providing blood samples to be a kidney donor to his mother. Other family members were tested as well, but some variable always kept them from matching.

"If (doctors) find anything wrong or out of place, they won't proceed and you won't be a match," said Mrs. Simmons, proudly sporting her "Superman" emblem T-shirt featuring a large K and the word "Recipient" italicized below. "They are very specific. Anything that'd put you or the patient in harm's way was ruled out."

Airman Simmons got the call in December 2009, after seven months and two trips home for exams. His donation coordinator informed him he was a perfect match to donate his kidney.

"All I could do was smile for the first few minutes," he said. "Then the tears came. I thought, 'After all this time with her going through everything, I'm going to be the one to do something to help her.'"

After gaining his composure, he called his mom to share the good news.

"I was so happy, but I feared for him," Mrs. Simmons said when she found out her son could be her donor. "He was so young, and I didn't want to interfere with the rest of his life because of me."

Although 2009 ended optimistically for the Simmons family, 2010 brought languish and frustration. A paperwork filing mix-up resulted in Airman Simmons re-accomplishing his entire donation candidate process of exams and physicals.

Although he met several obstacles and delays, Airman Simmons never wavered from his decision.

"After the paperwork got lost, I did get down about it, but something inside just kept driving me forward saying keep going, keep going," he said. "Something would never let me give up."

After the trials of the last 11 months, the Simmons family had another great December. The exams were completed, Airman Simmons was still a match, and his mother was in much better health than the previous year.

"There was a silver lining about 2010, because when we were pushing to get everything done, my mom wasn't at her best health at that time," said Airman Simmons, whose ultimate goal is to become an Air Force chaplain. "She wasn't strong enough to go through something like this then. I think everything came together at the right time."

Also in December, Airman Simmons married his fiancée Lashay.

"She's been so supportive and such a big help through the process," he said. "I couldn't have done this without her."

With everything finally in its right order, Airman Simmons began the humanitarian change of station process and he chose Eglin, due to its proximity to Alabama. The date for surgery was set, and May came quickly for the Simmons family.

Airman Simmons faced more exams and last-minute checks prior to the surgery at the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital. A few hours before, the staff brought in the consent form -- the last step before the surgery.

"There was no hesitation from me," Airman Simmons said. "I grabbed the pen and put down my signature. I said, 'Let's get this done. I'm ready.'"

The procedure took approximately five hours. Mother and son had adjoining operating rooms. They removed Airman Simmons' kidney from his lower abdomen and placed it into his mother through her back. Husband and father, Jerry Simmons, said his nerves were on edge during the entire procedure.

"It seemed like it took forever," said Mr. Simmons from underneath his Air Force baseball cap. "I got worried. You know your mind just wanders with all kind of thoughts. It was pretty rough waiting, but the doctor finally came out and said it was a smooth procedure and there were no complications."

Less than eight hours later, Airman Simmons fought through the pain to see his mother, who was in an adjoined recovery room.

"It was a short distance and painful. But seeing her, knowing her pain had stopped and she could now live a normal life took all my pain away," said the Airman. "It overjoyed me. That's what I had always wanted to see."

During the seven years prior to the surgery, Mrs. Simmons lived anything but a normal life. She received dialysis treatments three times a week for four to six hours per visit. Each outing was a 40-mile round trip.

"Every day seems like a dream that I don't have to get up and get ready to go to dialysis," she said in a whispering voice rapidly filling with emotion. "I get to be a grandmother again like I wanted to be and do things for my family I couldn't do because I was sick.

"Everybody says I'm the angel of the family. I want to continue to be that angel for them, and my son has given me the opportunity to do that. I thank God for that and for him and for keeping me here, and I hope he'll keep me here for a long time," she said, unable to contain her tears. Her husband and son put their arms around her to comfort her.

Mrs. Simmons left the recovery center June 15 for her hometown of Millerville, Ala. Airman Simmons said he's ready to get back to turning some wrenches, but he's not cleared for duty yet.

Going forward, Mrs. Simmons said she plans to do her part to take care of herself and her son's kidney, and she also wants to educate people on the risk factors and warning signs of kidney disease.

"I just want to urge others to get checked and not to put it off until it's too late," she said.

Fortunately for Mrs. Simmons, her son's kidney donation wasn't too late. Fighting through his pain, to get to his mother's beside, Airman Simmons had to see for himself that his donation journey was worthwhile. His love and sacrifice for her had not been in vain, but was a success, and his mother was on the road to recovery.