By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Feb 23, 2008 7:43:56 EST
Staff Sgt. Darren Smiley was sitting at Thanksgiving dinner in 2006 when he made a decision: He needed to see if he could help a man he barely knew by giving up a kidney.
Within weeks, Smiley, a reservist with Charlie Company, 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, started a lengthy testing process that led him to an operating table Jan. 30 at UCLA Medical Center in California. His left kidney was removed and placed in Daniel Haven, 43, an X-ray technician and father of a 4-year-old girl.
Days after the surgery, Smiley, a 31-year-old father of three who has served two tours in Iraq, shrugged off the donation.
“I have a young son myself, and the waiting list is usually seven or eight years,” he said in a Feb. 5 phone interview from California. “I would hope that someone would do the same for me if they had the chance.”
The surgery has brought together two clans that had a familial connection but did not know each other particularly well. Haven and Smiley’s wife, Mylinda, are first cousins, but the two men had met only once or twice, in part because the Smileys live in Plains, Mont., and the Havens in Oxnard, Calif.
“I really got to know [Smiley] for the first time through this,” Haven said in a Feb. 5 telephone interview from his home. “How can you thank someone for the gift of life?”
Haven was born prematurely and diagnosed at 12 with glomerulonephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys that can cause fluid retention in the body, high blood pressure and kidney failure.
He was also born with hip problems that led to a December 2005 replacement surgery that almost killed him when potassium levels in his blood spiked, said his wife, Yanira.
“He almost flat-lined on us on the [operating] table,” she said. “He ... almost had a heart attack [because of his potassium levels].”
Not long after the hip replacement, Haven’s kidney problems increased, he said. Doctors had told him for years that he eventually would need dialysis, but he hadn’t expected it would begin in March 2006, at age 41.
A near-perfect match
Haven’s O-positive blood type made finding a match particularly difficult because a donor would have to have the same blood type. He was told he would probably have to wait five to seven years for a match and began undergoing dialysis three times per week.
Smiley learned of Haven’s condition while attending Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Haven’s father, Terry. When Terry Haven mentioned that no one in the immediate family was a potential donor, “something clicked” inside him, Smiley said.
“He said all [a donor] needed to be is O-positive, and that’s what sparked it,” Smiley said. “My wife and I prayed about it, and we decided to see if it was at least a possibility.”
The decision did not surprise members of Smiley’s unit, which deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2005.
“He’s a damn good man,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ben Murrell, who has known Smiley for more than five years. “He’s the kind of person who can be a war fighter one minute and be telling you what the good Lord thinks the next.”
In fact, Smiley downplayed what he was doing, asking only for a month off from drill because he had “a doctor’s appointment he couldn’t miss,” said Maj. Allan Jaster, Charlie Company’s commander.
“I casually asked him what was up, and he said, ‘I’m giving my kidney to my wife’s cousin,’ and it was all very matter-of-fact,” Jaster said. “He wasn’t looking for any bonus points.”
Smiley said he sought permission from the Corps before agreeing to donate, and is expecting a clean bill of health.
“I went through the proper channels,” he said. “They said that as long as I knew the Corps wasn’t liable if anything went wrong during surgery, I was free to do it. I felt very supported by the command in my unit.”
Lt. Col. Mark Hashimoto, commanding officer of 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, said that — according to the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery — a leatherneck must only notify the Corps if he chooses to become a living donor.
Hasimoto met with Smiley before the surgery, taking a personal interest in part because his own wife and several members of her family also have received kidney transplants after being diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease.
“When I took over command of this battalion in August 2007, I tried to stress the concept of developing good character and letting your actions speak for themselves,” Hashimoto said in a telephone interview from his Hawaii office. “I thanked [Smiley] for embodying what we are looking for.”
When reached by Marine Corps Times, Smiley was already sightseeing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs six days after surgery. He returned home to Montana on Feb. 9.
“I’ve been taking little walks and trying to get exercise, but it hasn’t been bad,” he said.
Haven said his new kidney has responded well after being placed in the front right side of his abdomen, above his bladder. Haven still has his original two kidneys, including a nonfunctioning left one.
“I’m tired, but everything is going great at this point,” he said. “Fifty percent of all transplanted kidneys get rejected, but [doctors] can reverse it if it’s caught early with medication.”
Yanira Haven said she and her husband consider the staff sergeant a godsend and feel they have a “lifetime connection” with him.
“After putting his life on the line for his country, he put his life on the line for us,” she said. “He’s one in a billion, I think.”