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Retired chiefs' friendships help save a sibling's life

May. 14, 2013 - 02:09PM   |  
Left to right: step brother Charles Nelson Jr, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Helen D. Noel (Ret.), her sister Debra Nelson, and her brother Algie Nelson (all standing). Their mother Beatrice Nelson is seated. Helen Noel donated a kidney to her brother Algie Nelson.
Left to right: step brother Charles Nelson Jr, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Helen D. Noel (Ret.), her sister Debra Nelson, and her brother Algie Nelson (all standing). Their mother Beatrice Nelson is seated. Helen Noel donated a kidney to her brother Algie Nelson. (Photo courtesy of Noel family)
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More than 20 years ago, retired Chief Master Sgt. Helen Noel began two friendships at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., that would one day help save her brother’s life.

She met Bridget Lanier in 1989 while both women were staff sergeants. They became almost instant friends.

In 2009, they emceed each other’s retirement celebrations.

Noel and Sandy Ware began speaking after they’d left the service, encouraging each other through difficult times in their lives.

Noel was chatting with Lanier Jan. 11, 2012, when Lanier asked about Noel’s brother, Algie Nelson, a former Marine who had been diagnosed with kidney failure, perhaps caused during his time at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in the 1980s when it was discovered the drinking water was contaminated.

Lanier’s mother died from kidney failure.

“My mother never told her six children that she needed a kidney,” Lanier said in an email to Air Force Times, “and I feel to this day that at least one of us would have been a match.”

Lanier asked if Noel’s other brother, Tyrone, who had multiple sclerosis, could be a kidney donor. Noel never got the chance to find out. Later that night, Tyrone was hospitalized and died the next day.

Exactly one year later, during a phone call with Ware, “she began to tell me how several months earlier, she’d become a kidney advocate to help [Ware’s] brother” find a donor, Noel said.

Ware told Noel how she could become an advocate for Nelson.

Noel, who lives in Hampton Roads, contacted a donor coordinator near her brother’s home in Ohio, explaining she couldn’t donate herself because of a B-12 deficiency.

The coordinator told Noel that might not be the case. “Before I went out and asked anyone else,” she said, “I needed to be tested. [Doctors] said it was possible.”

Noel was a perfect match for Nelson. On April 9, she donated her kidney to her brother.

The siblings spent their recovery together in Ohio with their mother. “It was like we were kids again and mommy was taking care of us,” said Noel, who is four years younger than Nelson.

Noel was cleared to travel home just a couple of weeks after the surgery. Nelson, freed from three-times-a-week dialysis, is also doing well. He’s looking forward to the birth of his first grandchild.

“A lot of people wondered why I was so willing to give my kidney to my brother,” Noel said. “We’ve always grown up with the mantra ‘blood is thicker than water.’ Think about how much we sacrifice for our Air Force family, and how much more we would be willing to sacrifice for our own.”

And if not for her decades-long friendships with two fellow chief master sergeants, Noel said, her brother’s story might not have had a happy ending.

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