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Down to one, Hanscom employee waits for a kidney

Brian Monahan with his daughters Keira, 3 and Maddie, 2 and his wife Rhonda.

Brian Monahan, left, with his daughters Keira, 3 and Maddie, 2, and his wife Rhonda, right. (Photo courtesy of the Monahan family)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Brian Monahan, a 45-year-old contract specialist with the Battle Management Directorate, spent national Donate Life Month, April, looking for a kidney. He’s still looking.

At 17, a rare illness called genetic polycystic kidney disease ravaged both his kidneys. After enduring failing kidneys for six years, the whole time on a transplant waiting list, he received a cadaver kidney while in college, giving him one functional kidney, which is all humans require for normal function. That kidney lasted for approximately 20 years, until January.

“I came down with pneumonia in January, and that kind of put this one kidney over the edge,” said Monahan. “I was just looking at bad [blood sample] numbers prior to that, and I was on a ventilator at the hospital. It was a pretty difficult time.”

Right now, his single, transplanted kidney is just above the minimum functionality for an organ that is responsible for cleansing the blood of toxins, excess nutrients and minerals. In March, Monahan joined the donation list at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is the Northeast’s regional donation registry. Though any available option could grant him healthy years, he’s hoping for a donation from a living organ donor, because they last longer than cadaver kidneys harvested from deceased organ donors.

“My job can be challenging, and I get lots of support from my friends and supervisors here,” said Monahan. He works in foreign military sales for mission planning systems, most recently facilitating Poland’s acquisition of $5,000 in computer systems used to plan aircraft missions. “I think what we do here is important to our allies and builds strong ties.”

Monahan is also a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s married, with two daughters, aged two and three. While at Harvard, he’s been exposed to Richard Thaler, an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who studies organ donation as a market. Rather than building a donor pool by requiring people to opt-in to the system, Thaler wants an opt-out system, thereby nudging more people to become organ donors after death.

Military members may opt-in to be organ donors, similar to civilians who fill out forms at the hospital, or check a box when applying for driver’s licenses or other government identification cards.

Lt. Col. Paul Bostrom, chief of medical staff for the 66th Medical Squadron, wants Airmen to be aware of requirements and potential career impact prior to signing up to donate organs. Air Force Instruction 44-102 encourages, without coercion, tissue and organ donation. Commander approval must be obtained, as well as medical certification of the expectation that the service member will return to world-wide deployability following the procedure.

“I think it's a very positive thing for an Airman to donate an organ,” said Bostrom. “But they should also be aware of the risks involved, and how it might impact their career.”