From strangers to family

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tristan Biese
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Thinking she was just going to perform a regular biological site survey, Carissa never suspected that one hour would end up changing the rest of her life.

Carissa Agnese, Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District planning department senior biologist, has what is called polycystic kidney disease. It’s a hereditary disease that grows cysts on the kidney, eating away at the tissue until they can’t function anymore.

“I’m a single mother with an 11 year-old son, so being on dialysis for so long, really took up a lot of my time and took away from being a good mother,” said Carissa. “Meeting Dan, I really think there was some sort of intervention from above, because I would never have thought Dan would be a donor for me.”

Carissa first met Dan Porter, 633rd Civil Engineer Squadron base energy manager, while doing a site survey at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, for a power generation plant.

“She was part of the team that came up to do the environmental baseline study of the property that we’re considering,” Dan said. “During the first meeting there, she indicated that she just started dialysis.”

After only knowing Carissa for just an hour, Dan offered to donate his kidney to her.

“How could anybody just walk away from someone in need like that,” Dan asked. “I can’t save the world, but I can save this woman and give her a life back.”

Once the decision was made they both started going through the screening process. The process included many tests such as CAT scans, an electrocardiogram, a nuclear stress test and many more.

“For me the waiting was the worst, because I was getting impatient knowing what Carissa was going through in dialysis,” Dan said. “There were times Carissa was struggling, and I understood it and it hurt me.”

However, later in the screening process they found out that the antibodies in Carissa’s blood were attacking Dan’s blood. Even though he was unable to donate his kidney to Carissa, their journey did not end there.

The two of them discovered a program called the Paired Kidney Exchange. The program is for two or more individuals that have incompatible kidneys who then exchange kidneys with another incompatible pair. This allows for a recipient to receive a better matched kidney, all while helping others who would continue to wait for a matched donor.

“Once you are going into the exchange to be matched, the typical time for a match is 11 months,” Dan said. “That’s the average – we were in the system being matched, six hours and 45 minutes later came a phone call that we had been matched.”

Due to this program, Dan ended up donating his kidney to someone in Wisconsin and Carissa received a kidney from someone in Minnesota, totaling six pairs of donors and recipients.

“When I found out that I had a match for my kidney, I didn’t know whether to cry or scream,” Carissa said. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs, sitting in my car in the parking lot and I just couldn’t believe this was happening. It was truly a miracle.”

The donors went into surgery in the morning to get their kidneys removed. A courier then took the kidney and transported it via commercial flight to the recipient. Later in the evening that same day the recipients went into surgery and accepted the kidney.

“It was quite amazing to know that somebody right in my backyard… would be willing to step forward,” Carissa said. “That’s the humbling thing about this community here at Langley is everybody is just so open, giving, honest, and willing to help each other.”

While Carissa wasn’t able to directly get her kidney from Dan, without his willingness to donate in the first place, she may have had to wait much longer for a kidney match.

“I don’t even think the words ‘thank you’ is enough,” Carissa said. “Dan, you know you saved my life and I don’t think there’s ever going to be words that could ever describe what you’ve done for [my son and me].”