By Staff Sgt. Amy Wieser Willson, North Dakota National GuardNovember 1, 2011
FARGO, N.D., Nov. 1, 2011 -- In the most simplistic military sense, it's a reallocation of assets. The story of how one N.D. Guardsman's kidney now filters the blood in his battle buddy's body, however, isn't nearly that simple. It spans two Afghanistan deployments, about 17 months of dialysis, worried family members, painful surgeries and an incredible amount of "selfless service."
Sgt. Francisco "Cisco" Raatz didn't have to think long on living up to that Army Value even as his worried mother questioned, "Are you sure you want to donate a kidney?"
Yes, he was sure.
"I've got to do this, mom," he told her.
He had seen Spc. John Chase's quality of life diminish as he spent hours connected to a dialysis machine, leaving him tired but trying to do what he could despite restrictions on what he could lift, eat and drink. Through it all, Chase tried to help others. It was time somebody helped him, Raatz said.
Plus, having been adopted, Chase's closest relatives truly are his "brothers and sisters in arms" in the National Guard family.
"Sergeant Raatz is just like my brother, it feels like," Chase said.
CONNECTED BY AFGHANISTAN
The two N.D. Guardsmen first met in 2005. Chase had served in the Marine Corps in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then bounced from job to job on the East Coast before moving his family to North Dakota for a better life.
It was then, after a 15-year break in military service, that he decided to enlist in the N.D. National Guard to serve his country again and improve his family's situation with the extra income. Plus, he said, "I like the military life."
He started pre-deployment training almost immediately and, by the end of the year, deployed to Afghanistan as part of the 1st Battalion, 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment's SECFOR (Security Forces) mission. He was joined by Raatz and about 150 others on the dangerous personnel security mission.
"A lot of us became really close on the SECFOR deployment because that was a different kind of mission," Raatz said. "We were there as military police and we were out doing combat patrols, and we actually did lose a few Soldiers, so that was a mission that brought a lot of us that were involved closer together. So, I think that was the big thing right there was that we were together doing those kinds of missions and stuff like that, and there when we lost people. Good times and bad times."
Just like Chase, Raatz had served on active-duty before joining the Guard. The son of an Airman who had traveled the world with his family -- from Turkey to Italy to stateside -- Raatz, too, joined the Air Force. He returned home to North Dakota in 2004 but missed the uniform and decided to join the Guard just a few months later.
SECFOR would be the first combat deployment for both Soldiers, but not their last. In November 2009, they returned to Afghanistan in a group of just 39 Soldiers to conduct a RAID (Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment) base security mission. Chase deployed as a supply specialist and Raatz, alongside his new bride, Spc. Jacqueline "Jackie" Raatz, worked on the RAID and Sentinel Radar systems.
When Chase's opportunity for a two-week leave came up in May 2010, he hadn't been feeling well for a little while.
"I just felt a little sick, and as 'a man' I don't go to the doctors every time, and it got better, so I just came home and went on with my life," Chase said. Then he laughed: "It didn't work out that good."
He took his wife of 17 years, Becky, and 15-year-old daughter, Natasha, to Disney World in Florida. Still not feeling well, he stopped by a walk-in clinic and was told he was just constipated. He made the most of Disney, but still not feeling well a week later, he tried another clinic but got the same diagnosis. With only a couple of days until he was scheduled to be back in Afghanistan, he went to the hospital in his hometown of Grand Forks. This time, the diagnosis was kidney failure.
"They put me in the emergency room so they could get me on dialysis and get all of the impurities and everything out of me because I was starting to get bloated and everything. (I) wasn't feeling very good at all," John Chase said.
His first thought at the shock of the new diagnosis? That he wouldn't be returning to his fellow Soldiers in Afghanistan.
Back in country, the Raatzs did their best to keep tabs on Chase's prognosis and, at one point, Cisco Raatz checked on Chase's blood type, learning that they shared A-positive blood, which was the first step in a good transplant match.
"We both just kind of prayed that everything would be all right for him," Cisco Raatz said of he and Jackie. "I'd talk to his wife online just to get updates every now and then to make sure everything was OK and just wish him the best until the rest of us were able to come home."
TIED TO A MACHINE
As the Afghanistan mission continued for the rest of the Guard unit, Chase started a new mission: four hours' worth of dialysis three times a week. Sitting in a reclining chair, a blunt needle connected to clear tubes runs into "button holes" in his left forearm, where a vein and artery have been conjoined to make a thicker entry point for the blood to flow in and out as it was cleaned by the dialysis machine. Anyone touching his arm could feel the vibrating rush of blood pulsing through his body, a sensation that Chase said causes itching and a weird feeling if his arm slides under his pillow as he sleeps.
The dialysis sessions left him exhausted and struggling to perform the tasks he was accustomed to doing.
"I get tired very easily," he said. "I still try to do more than I should and, at times, I regret it, and then I can't do anything and I have to lay down."
He has almost completely cut out milk, bananas and tomato products -- spaghetti and pizza, to his disappointment -- because the potassium levels negatively impacted his body. He found he needed to eat small meals throughout the day, rather than the normal portions to which he was accustomed, or he'd feel sick.
If he doesn't eat right, he said, "I can feel it because my bones (and) my muscles hurt walking up the stairs at the armory. If my potassium isn't high, I can zip right up them, but a lot of times I have to stop halfway and I'm out of breath. I'll get cramps trying to walk."
While on dialysis, he could have just a half-cup of milk a day. That counts toward the 40 ounces of liquid he was allowed to consume daily -- far less than what healthy people are encouraged to consume just in water, not to mention the coffee, juices and soda that are a way of life for most.
"For my family and me, it hasn't been the most enjoyable. You're limited on what you drink and what you eat," Chase said after undergoing yet another dialysis session at Aurora Dialysis Clinic in Grand Forks in September. "I guess when I'm home I do a little complaining, so my daughter really cannot wait until I have this done," he added with a chuckle.
He dreams of pouring a tall glass of cold water and chugging the entire thing. He hopes to reconnect with friends he's distanced himself from after finding it made him depressed thinking of the things they did that he could no longer do because he was tired and couldn't lift much.
Despite getting down on himself, he found a way to maintain his reputation for jocularity, teasing the dialysis assistants.
"They can't wait to get rid of me, I'm sure," Chase said.
"Who am I going to make fun of," one nurse quickly shot back.
It's his second to last treatment, and he's excited for what the future holds thanks to Raatz.
UNITED IN A MIRACLE
Several N.D. Guardsmen, all the way up the chain of command to Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Sveum Jr., offered Chase a kidney, but Raatz was the first to be tested. Having been adopted with no biological relatives available as a potential donor, Chase and Raatz knew the odds of a match were slim. Most patients on dialysis wait as long as 20 years with 70 to 80 possible donors being tested before a match is found.
"I think he was extremely blessed that the first person able to get tested was a match for him," Cisco Raatz said.
It's about time Chase had a little miracle, too, Raatz and Jackie say.
"John, he's a pretty easygoing guy," Cisco Raatz said. "He's always trying to put a smile on somebody's face. He's always trying to help people and sometimes (he) kind of gets screwed by the people he's trying to help, and part of me thought maybe it's about time that somebody tried to help him for all of his efforts."
While more nervous about the transplant surgery than her son's deployments to Afghanistan, Terezinha "Terri" Raatz, Cisco's mom, wasn't surprised by his decision.
"He's always had a big heart and always tries to help people no matter what," she said.
Jackie sees her husband the same way.
"He's a very caring man. He'd do anything for a fellow Soldier," Terri Raatz said. "When you're deployed together like he was with John and a lot of other guys and gals, that becomes like your second family overseas, so you help each other out, especially when you get back, because you're friends for life when you deploy together.
"(Donating a kidney) was a pretty noble gesture of him. It's not easy for someone to go through that and be in that pain for weeks, but ultimately it's the right thing to do. I'm really proud of him," she explained.
She described Chase the same way, saying he, too, would do anything for a fellow Soldier. As an example, she told of a Guardsman who was homeless. Chase took him in to his family's home, giving him a place to stay and helping him financially, even though he didn't have much himself.
JOINED DURING SURGERY
On Sept. 27, it was Chase's turn to benefit from the kindness of others.
The Raatz family arrived at Fargo's Sanford Hospital first, checking in just before 5 a.m. Cisco Raatz had undergone the last in a battery of tests the day before and was ready to go.
"I'm a little nervous. I'm not gonna lie," Jackie Raatz said as she sat with her husband and mother-in-law in the waiting room.
Before long, Cisco and Jackie were taken back to a room where he was given a hospital gown fit with a heated tube.
"It's like a Humvee heater," Jackie Raatz joked, trying to keep things light despite her nervousness.
Nurses and a doctor and anesthesiologist made their way in and out of the room with updates and to retrieve power of attorney paperwork. As the clock ticked closer to the 8 a.m. scheduled time to move to the operating room, Jackie joined hands around Cisco's bed with Terri and another fellow Guardsman and offered a simple prayer.
"Lord, we ask of you today, the day of my husband's surgery, that you watch over him and John Chase, as well. Keep them healthy and protect them through surgery. We'd like you to see to it, Lord, that surgery goes well and everyone has a speedy recovery," she prayed.
In the meantime, the Chase family was checking in at Sanford, as well. When John Chase heard he could see Cisco Raatz for a minute before he was wheeled into the OR, he excitedly leapt out of his seat in the waiting room and rushed back.
The Guardsmen chatted animatedly about the horrors of catheters and being hungry and thirsty until, at 7:55 a.m., when hospital staff came for Cisco.
"See you later, bro," Chase said as his buzzer to report to be prepped for surgery went off, as well.
"It's pretty amazing to see that you can give that gift of life to another person like that, someone who is living," Jackie Raatz said as she waited for updates of the surgery's progress. "John's quality of life isn't very good with his kidneys and being on dialysis, and knowing that Cisco is helping him so much live a normal life without the constant medical expenses and disability that he has, I mean, that's a pretty amazing gift, but John definitely deserves it, so I'm glad (Cisco) can help with that."
SHARING PAIN IN RECOVERY
By the next day, the men were recovering in separate rooms on the third floor of Sanford. Cisco was visibly in pain, flinching every time he needed to cough -- which was frequently due to the aftereffects of surgery. He clutched a tightly folded sheet over the incision on the left side of his body, hoping the pressure would ease the pain that was only going to get worse as the carbon dioxide that was pumped into his body during surgery worked its way up and out.
Chase was doing better, excited about being able to start eating and drinking normal foods again. It was also the first time in about a year and a half that he didn't have needles in his arm.
"I have three kidneys now," he exclaimed to visitors. "I'm special!"
Then, he lifted his hospital gown to show the roughly 10-inch long incision along his left, front side, where Cisco's healthy kidney now filters impurities alongside Chase's two failed organs.
On his hospital bed was a red, kidney shaped pillow that well-wishers from the Guard autographed for him. Centered on the front was Cisco's message: "Enjoy my kidney!"
The men visited and talked about how they were feeling and talk of when they'd be released in a few days. Cisco would be out of work for at least three weeks as he recovered at home, and he will be limited on what he can do for a little while afterward. Chase will transition to the Scandia Hotel near the hospital for a few weeks, from where he will easily be able to report daily as Sanford monitors his bloodwork and the antirejection pills he'll need to take for the rest of his life.
Both Guardsmen are anxious to again resume drilling with their unit in Grand Forks. Chase hopes the armory there will display a special donation flag that their wives were able to raise on the flagpole outside of Sanford the day after surgery. It reads, "Donate Life." Guardsmen can save lives through organ donation and continue to serve their country is the message Chase wants people to take away from the display.
There are a lot of ways service members work to save lives, after all, but this is one of which they may not be aware, he said.
"I'm very proud of him," Terri Raatz said of her son's willingness to save a battle buddy's life through organ donation. "He's my hero, too -- not because he's my son, but I think everybody that sacrifices something for somebody else, I think that (makes them) a hero."
"For me, I never knew what heroes look like," she contined. "For me, he's my hero."