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12th Air Force NCO selflessly donates kidney, improves recipient's quality of life

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Eric Petosky
  • 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) Public Affairs
Valinda Jones, a nurse in Woodland Hills, Calif., had endured more than 14,500 hours of dialysis over the last five years - that's 8 hours a day, every day of the year, relying on a machine to filter impurities from her blood. Thanks to Master. Sgt. Nicole Lanstrum, Jones is back to a living a normal life. 

Sergeant Lanstrum selflessly donated one of her kidneys to Jones, who was diagnosed with renal failure in 2001. Jones received the new kidney in a successful transplant operation June 9 at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center. Sergeant Lanstrum was thrilled to finally become a donor, fulfilling a generous dream of hers to help someone whose quality of life suffered due to kidney failure. 

"I feel that I've been very blessed in my life, with my family and my job, and I really wanted to pass those blessings onto other people," said Sergeant Lanstrum, an intelligence analyst with the 612th Air Operations Center. "I believe that God speaks to all of us to improve the world in different ways. At the end of the day, you figure out how, and then it's your choice whether or not to be obedient to that feeling. That's why I wasn't scared or apprehensive about donating." 

It's estimated that up to 80,000 people are on the kidney donor list in the United States. Many of those people in need of a kidney have willing family donors, but often the donors are not a strong match for the recipient. The highest success rates result from living donors who are also a strong match. Jones' best friend Sarah was willing to donate, but was not a strong match. After Sergeant Lanstrum decided to donate, Sarah volunteered to donate her kidney to someone that she did match. So began the "Service Before Self Transplant Chain." 

"The transplant chain still has the potential to go on forever," she said. "While using a Donor Exchange Program, transplant coordinators seek potential kidney recipients in need who have a willing but incompatible donor. Bottom Line, kidneys will continue to go to those who have incompatible loved ones willing to donate. Each has already agreed to donate to a stranger after their loved one receives a kidney."

So far, there have been two successful transplants in the donor chain, with virtually unlimited potential for more if the donor chain remains unbroken, all thanks to Sergeant Lanstrum. 

"The three of us were prepped for surgery at UCLA that morning," Sergeant Lanstrum wrote in an e-mail after her surgery. "While Valinda received my kidney, her friend Sarah's kidney was removed in Los Angeles as well, but then flown immediately to San Francisco where an even better suited recipient received her kidney. The four of us are all doing great now!" 

After the surgery, Nicole got a chance to meet Jones for the first time. The tearful meeting was full of thanks and plenty of hugs. Nicole also met Jones' family, and she said it was like receiving a "new family." 

"When Valinda and I met, there wasn't a dry eye in the room," she said. "It has been painful to hear everything such a lovely woman has been through. At the same time, it's been an absolute blessing to help give her a better quality of life." 

Nicole's husband George, a staff sergeant at the 355th Security Forces Squadron, said he was very supportive of her decision. 

"When Nicole first told me I was surprised, but not shocked," he said. "She has always been a very giving person and really does her best to make positive impacts on the world when she can. I am very proud of her. She and I share the same views when it comes to helping folks in need. 

"As of now there are two in Nicole's chain, and it's predicted to grow. I am very very excited about it. There are two people whose lives will be forever changed for the better because of this act. You can't put into words what this will do for the families involved, and it all started with someone who just wanted to do the right thing." 

Lt. Col. David Wallace, 612th AOC commander, also supported the decision, and helped get Sergeant Lanstrum the approvals necessary to donate. 

"My initial reaction upon hearing that Master Sgt. Lanstrum was going to donate an organ to save the life of someone she didn't know was 'what a selfless act,'" Colonel Wallace said. "After meeting with her to sign the paperwork and chatting a bit more about the process, it became obvious to me that this decision was one she spent a long time contemplating. She did this purely because it was the right thing to do. She is certainly a role model for others to follow." 

Sergeant Lanstrum has since returned to work and made a complete recovery. 

"This was by far the best experience in my life."