PHOENIX - An Arizona Air National Guard paralegal put Air Force values into action saving the life of a civilian coworker’s spouse through organ donation.
As the law office superintendent for the 161st Air Refueling Wing, Air Force Master Sgt. Lori Jung may not be a likely hero in the midst of a warzone, but off the battlefield is a hero of major proportion. That proportion equates to almost 70 percent of her liver she donated to save the life of a civilian coworker’s spouse.
Surrounded by what Jung calls her Air Force family, her supervisor, Lt. Col. John Conley jokingly said, “Lori Jung really knows how to de-liver.” With smiles and laughs all around, Conley said, “I’m not surprised that Master Sgt. Jung would do something so selfless. I would instead be surprised if she said no. She is one of the most caring, giving people I know and is exemplary of one of our core values where we place service before self.”
Outside of the National Guard, Jung works for the Social Security Administration in Phoenix where she first met her coworker Darrin Wilbanks in August of 2012. The two quickly became friends and Wilbanks shared the story of his wife Kristy and her non-curable genetic liver disease. Wilbanks suffered from primary biliary cirrhosis or PBC.
Over the next few months, the Wilbanks, who live in Mesa, went through the process of getting Kristy accepted and placed on the liver transplant list. She was already seven years past diagnosis of PBC and the last two-to-three years she describes as “debilitating and so painful it hurt to wear clothes.”
As 2013 progressed, so did Kristy’s condition for the worse. As part of the process, potential donors are tested for compatibility and family members are sought out first for a better chance of a match with blood types and genetics. Unfortunately for the Wilbanks none of their family members were compatible.
Jung offered to try and submitted to blood work in July of 2013. The testing and research is extensive in finding transplant matches and it wasn’t until mid October that Jung was notified that she was a match for Kristy Wilbanks. The timing was crucial as Wilbanks suffered complications later in the month and her liver was rapidly failing.
On Nov. 13, 2013, the Peoria resident and single mother of two gave the Wilbanks family, specifically Kristy, a true reason to give thanks at the holidays as they underwent successful liver transplant surgery at the Mayo Clinic in North Phoenix.
“It was life saving and life changing,” said Wilbanks. “If Lori chose not to, my disease was progressing to the point where I wasn’t sure about how much time I would have left. I will be eternally grateful.”
Jung’s faith and values are the catalyst for her gift to her friend’s family. She said, “From day one I believe everything that happened was supposed to and I felt a sense of calm [about my decision]. God calls us to help anyway we can and this is how he called me to help.”
While a 15 inch incision will remind Jung of her sacrifice, she said, “I hope it teaches my children about being selfless.” Jung added she feels very blessed in her life with the family and friends who supported her decision to help the Wilbanks.
Coworkers from the Social Security Administration donated leave for her recovery time and members of the Air National Guard were on hand at the hospital and for weeks after to make sure she was doing well.
Overall the recovery time is approximately three-to-four months, but she starts the New Year knowing she gave Kristy and her family a new chance at life. Jung in return is the recipient of an outpouring of gratitude from Wilbanks’ family and friends.
Wilbanks said she never thought she would entertain the idea of accepting such an incredible gift where someone like Jung, who she barely knew, would go through so much to help save her life. Wilbanks and Jung believe in the power of life one can give through organ donation and encourage others to learn more on how they might be someone’s hero, or as Wilbanks said, “guardian angel.”