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Faith, family, and friendship fosters Navy lieutenant through kidney failure

25 September 2023

From Matthew Stinson

Lt. Nathan Henderson, assistant public works officer serving Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) Washington at Naval Support Activity South Potomac, survived sudden kidney failure thanks to his faith, family, fellow sailors, and an old friend.

Lt. Nathan Henderson, assistant public works officer serving Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) Washington at Naval Support Activity South Potomac, survived sudden kidney failure thanks to his faith, family, fellow sailors, and an old friend.

On March 16, 2022, Henderson, who goes by Nate, was in MedStar Georgetown University Hospital with his wife, Claire, welcoming their first child, Everett, into the world. Two days later, Nate received a phone call from a physician who told him to check himself into an emergency room immediately.

“Luckily I was already at Georgetown,” Nate said. “So, I went downstairs to the ER and was admitted for seven days while they tried everything to figure out what was going on.”

Nate found out he was suffering from end-stage chronic kidney disease without any real symptoms present.

Through sheer intuition, he bought online an at-home men’s health blood panel test that measured things like cholesterol and testosterone.

“My thought process of buying the blood panel test was that I had just turned 31, I had never had those types of tests done and just wanted to make sure I was healthy,” Nate said.

Claire, who is a nurse at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, was instantly concerned.

“When I saw the kidney numbers, I thought to myself, ‘That can't be right. There's no way he feels as normal as he does and has numbers like that,’” Claire said. “I wasn't too worried because I just assumed it was a fluke. They would repeat the labs, and they would be normal. I never in a million years thought that they could be his real values.”

Nate made an appointment with his primary care manager who recommended he take the panel again. The same results came back. Nate was admitted to the hospital and underwent a week of rigorous testing by a variety of specialists who reviewed his case curiously.

“I was the anomaly in the hospital,” said Nate. “The seven days I was admitted, I wasn’t hooked up to an IV or anything else because they had no idea what was wrong with me, a seemingly perfectly healthy 31-year-old.”

Ultimately, biopsy results on Nate’s kidney revealed the culprit, an auto-immune disease, generally triggered by a past infection or another method that creates anti-bodies, which causes severe scarring in the kidney and ultimately failure. He needed a kidney transplant quickly otherwise he would need dialysis treatment three days a week, four hours per treatment, for the rest of his life to survive.

“When Nate's doctors told us we should start looking for possible living donors, we just started within his family and close friends,” said Claire. “When the first few promising prospects turned out to be incompatible, we knew we needed to get the word out in a greater capacity.”

Claire took to Facebook and detailed the situation in a desperate, heartfelt post asking for help. The response was overwhelming, as many friends stepped forward to be tested for compatibility.

Dr. Taber Wanstall, a professor in the School of Engineering at Dayton University and an old friend of Nate, found out about the situation when his wife, Katrina, saw Claire’s Facebook post.

“I still remember the night that [Katrina] read the post to me,” said Taber. “We were sitting on our couch in our living room and had just put our daughter, Emma, to sleep. She started reading the post. I could not believe it.”

Taber and Nate have known each other since the third grade. They were both from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and attended college together at the University of Alabama where they both studied engineering. After graduation in 2014, they both went their separate ways. At the time Taber read Claire’s Facebook post, he and Nate had not spoken in six years.

“[Katrina and I] talked about just reaching out to see what the process of donation was, although not with any determined seriousness,” Taber said. “After that night, whenever I would go to Christ in prayer or read my Bible, Nate always came to mind. I could not help but think, ‘What if Nate dies and I could have been a match?’ After several weeks of this, I knew these thoughts were not from me, but they were from the Holy Spirit. I could either ignore what I knew Christ was telling me or act in obedience. So, I called Nate.”

Taber later went to stay with Nate and Claire in Washington, D.C. to get tested to see if he was a match at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He acknowledged the low probability that he would end up being a match, and even admits he hoped he would not be.

“I even remember praying that God might use other means to heal Nate and it would not have to be me,” Taber said. “I was honest and candid with Nate when I went to Washington D.C. to stay with him for the testing procedure. During all of this, Nate and Claire were beyond supportive of any decision I came to – even opting out. I felt zero pressure from their side. This speaks volumes about their character and who they are.”

Staying with Nate was a sobering experience for Taber, as he saw first-hand how his friend’s condition was affecting almost every aspect of his life, especially raising his newborn son. Nate was prescribed a high dose of steroids which acts as an anti-inflammatory. He suffered severe side effects from this treatment, like debilitating joint pain, swelling in his face, and extreme fatigue that made it challenging to get out of bed most days.

Two weeks after the trip, Taber received a phone call from his contact at Walter Reed. He was a match.

“The phone call was a mixed bag of emotions,” said Taber. “I told both Nate and [my contact at Walter Reed] that I needed two weeks to talk this over with my wife and pray about it. Deep down, though, I knew that if I ended up being a match that this was God's will for me and Nate.”

After this time of prayer and consultation with family and friends, Taber selflessly agreed to donate his kidney to Nate.

A few months before the transplant surgery, Claire spoke about Nate’s situation to a member of an organization she belongs to, the Career Women’s Golf Organization (CWGO). She learned of Dr. Jamie Diaz-Robinson, a fellow CWGO member, and a surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Claire reached out.

“[Dr. Diaz-Robinson] quickly responded, offered to meet, and made sure she was one of Nate's surgeons for his transplant,” Claire said. “It gave me so much peace to know that she was spearheading his care. We truly believe this connection was divinely orchestrated.”

In the autumn of 2022, both Taber and Nate underwent surgery. Taber underwent robotic laparoscopic surgery. Nate, who had lost 25lbs under the tumultuous circumstances, underwent open surgery because his waist was too small.

Both surgeries were successful.

“Taber’s parents came up from Alabama for the surgery,” said Nate. “I had not seen Taber’s dad, Chris, since high school and the first thing he said to me after the procedure was, ‘Hey, son, good to see ya.’ I now share DNA with him, so he considers me a son now, same as Taber. I gained a brother, and I gained a family through all of this.”

Kidneys transplanted from a living donor can remain viable for decades, but every situation is different. Nate and Taber are hopeful that the kidney will last with Nate for as long as possible, but will go through any challenges that may come up, together.

“I know this has bonded us for the rest of our lives,” said Taber. “Nate and his family have also shown us so much love, grace, and gratitude during this process. I am so glad Nate ended up receiving my kidney, as I know it is with a good man, friend, father, husband, and brother in Christ.”

Faith was a crucial comfort and motivator for both men throughout the ordeal. Nate also credits Claire and his son with pulling him through the hard times.

“He’s my only child, but I feel like our bond is beyond being a father and son,” Nate said. “He gave me reason and meaning to fight so hard through all of this. I didn’t know I was capable of getting through something so difficult. He and Claire are the reason I’m here today and doing so much better and are what the Lord used to give me that motivation to fight so hard.”

Nate also credits the Navy for supporting him.

“As far as the Navy goes, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has been amazing,” Nate said. “From the second I got there last year, through the surgery and all the support until now, they have been awesome. Their transplant department is phenomenal. Also, NAVFAC Washington and the Civil Engineer Corps were, and still are, extremely supportive of me. From Public Works Department South Potomac, Indian Head, all the way up to the NAVFAC Washington front office, it’s just been a constant that people are asking me how I’m doing and wondering if they can help in any way.”

Nate’s desire to share this story is evident when he speaks about the hardships he and his family suffered. Instead of dwelling on those hardships and all the changes he will continue to endure for the rest of his life, he believes this situation has been, in some ways, a blessing.

“My motivation to share my story is to give hope. We can all push through something so difficult and traumatizing emotionally and physically and get through to the other side to realize that there are better days ahead. If you keep your motivation, in my case my faith, there’s so much you can persevere through and come out a better person for. And it doesn’t have to be something as difficult as this, it can be something as small as not meeting a deadline at work, any adversity, just know that there are so many challenges people go through, but often going through them makes you better on the other side. Beat in the darkness so you can see the light through it all.”

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