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Citizen Airman becomes living organ donor, saves sister

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Lauren M. Snyder

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas — When one 433rd Airlift Wing Reserve Citizen Airman learned there was a way to help her sick sister through a living organ donor program, she didn’t hesitate to volunteer.

Senior Master Sgt. Carol A. Allen, 433rd Force Support Squadron Sustainment Flight superintendent, is dedicated to her family and her role as an Airman.

“I’m really close to my family,” Allen said. “My whole family is here—that’s one of the reasons I joined the Reserve. I briefly thought about joining the regular Air Force, but I was a homebody and didn’t want to move away from my family—that’s a personal choice. I’ve gotten to travel quite a bit, but I always got to come home.”

When her sister, Yvonne Hernandez, started getting sick, it jeopardized the stability of one of her dearest relationships.

Their birthdays are only 11 months apart. They live only a 15-minute drive away from one another and neither can picture life without the other.

“We’ve always been close; she’s what brings us together,” Allen said. “My sister had an immune-type of liver disease. She lost a lot of weight and was looking very, very sick. Every time I saw her it was sad to see her like that. She had always been the pillar in our family and to see her sick and not her old self was hard.”

However, Allen realized she had a chance to help when her sister told her about needing a new liver.

“If I wouldn’t have been there and a match, I could have lost her,” said Allen. “When my sister started talking to me about the living organ donor opportunity, I was surprised to hear that livers grow back. It’s pretty awesome that you can help someone like that, and it’s only a temporary setback.”

Allen’s healthy lifestyle, encouraged by the Air Force, was essential in her ability to become a living organ donor.

“I was on the high cusp for age limit, but what helps me is that I keep healthy, keep busy, keep active…of course, you have to do that being in the military but that helped me a lot,” she said.

A large part of that active life is her hobby of cycling—she was a member of the Air Force Cycling Team for several years and still rides with several other local groups.

“I’m a cyclist—that’s what makes me happy,” she said. “So, I was healthy enough to be able to do this; even at this age, I was able to help her out. It was a blessing to be able to say, ‘yes, I can do this!’ There was never an issue of me saying ‘I can’t’ or ‘I’m scared;’ the option was not seeing her anymore and not growing old with her.”

Allen describes the two-month screening process to becoming a donor as very thorough.

“They did a lot of tests on me, all kinds of tests, all kinds of blood, to make sure I was healthy enough; there were no issues for me,” she said. “It wasn’t just for my sister—they do look out for the donor to make sure they don’t let you do something that will put you at risk—it’s not just ‘hey, I need a liver’ and not worry about you after…they were very thorough in making sure I was healthy enough to do this, which is great.”

When it came time for surgery Allen was ready, but the liver donation still wasn’t a sure thing.

“I was nervous only in that I wouldn’t be compatible and a match—I didn’t want that to happen because I wanted to help my sister,” she said. “They took me back first, and of course she saw me off; I bawled, and she bawled. Even at that point, it’s still kind of iffy because when they open you up, and they see your liver, there might be issues there. The most you can donate of your liver is 65%, which is what they gave her.”

It will be a full year post-surgery in May 2019, and Allen and her sister are both back to good health.

“My sister is doing great and looks so healthy,” said Allen. “She is so grateful to me, and she doesn’t know that I am so grateful that she is here, because I cannot imagine this life without her. She’s been there for me, and I’ve been there for her. I want her to be there for her kids and husband; it would be horrible for her to not be there for them, too.”

Allen had a sense of peace about being a living organ donor for her sister.

“It was a great joy to know that I was able to help her and she was going to be ok,” she said. “I would do it all over again. There is some pain associated with it and the things that go through your head, but as long as you are healthy, it wasn’t bad getting back to normal life. The bottom line is that God put it on my heart to do it, and the outcome is that my sister gets another chance.”

Allen said one of the hardest parts of the whole process was waiting to heal.

“Within two months, I was already back on my bike,” said Allen. “I wanted to get back to normal and just pedaled around…nothing more than 10 miles. It was hard for me to sit there and heal; I’m always moving and doing something. I’m back to normal now though and am planning on a 60-mile ride this weekend.”

Living life fully is a family trait; Hernandez told her sister she’s going to live the best life she can because of the gift Allen gave her.

“She’s my little sister, but I’ve always looked up to her,” said Hernandez. “Carol has always been a strong woman and set a really good example for my family, for my kids—she’s their second mom. The fact that she did this for me says a lot about her as a person. She’s just very giving.”

Hernandez knows her sister is both generous and dedicated, seeing the proof in her ties to family and military service.

“The Air Force has been her life and she loves it,” said Hernandez. “She’s very proud of that and we’re very proud of that for her.”

Allen has served in the Air Force Reserve for more than three decades, having transitioned from traditional reserves duty to a full-time position five years ago after working for the local grocery chain H-E-B for 21 years.

“I’ve been happy here—why go changing it?” Allen said. “When you do something you love, you look back and think, ‘wow, where have the years gone?’”

The sisters’ plan on sharing their golden years, both echoing their plans to be old ladies together.

“I’m so happy that I have her,” said Hernandez. “I’ll always be grateful to her and all I can do is cherish the gift that she’s given and take care of it. We want to grow old together and we will, God willing. I’m just blessed and I’m honored and she’s my hero—I wouldn’t be here without her.”