NEWBURGH, N.Y. — Air Force Master Sgt. Henry Windels donated one of his kidneys to Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Cola in October, saving Cola from a difficult and limited life with continual kidney-dialysis treatments.
Windels has returned to duty at Stewart Air National Guard Base here, Cola is continuing a remarkable recovery, and the two men — both members of the 105th Airlift Wing and once just acquaintances — said they are much closer.
Moreover, Cola and his wife Aly said they are eternally grateful to Windels. They've gained a new perspective on life, they said, and a determination to focus on helping others.
"My husband was given a second chance at life — we aren't going to do things the same," Aly said. "We're not going to take things for granted, like holidays and lazy Sundays."
In the fall of 2014, everything was coming together for Cola, a flight equipment specialist: He was 28 years old, in his third year as a New York police officer, his 10th year with the New York Air National Guard, and he'd just married Aly, his childhood sweetheart.
Cola said he and his new bride were on the fourth day of their honeymoon in the Turks and Caicos Islands when he began to feel ill.
"He was really only feeling sick at night. During the day he seemed to be OK," Aly said.
The couple said they thought he just had a minor sickness that can be common when traveling abroad, but on the final night his condition got much worse. "That's when it hit me full-blown. I was puking, dehydrated and couldn't keep anything down," Cola said.
There was a small hospital on the island, Cola said, but he wanted to get back home to New York, where he trusted the medical care more. Besides, he said he thought he just had a bug and needed to be hydrated, which happened to him on a previous trip to the Dominican Republic.
He said his symptoms continued to get worse, making the trip home a difficult one. He began vomiting nearly every 15 minutes and looked like a zombie, Aly said. Coincidentally, the Ebola scare of 2014 was at its height during that time.
"The flight was terrible," Aly said, adding that Cola was making trips to the airplane lavatory every 15 minutes. "Everybody was staring at us, everybody was scared — everybody thought he had Ebola."
Though Aly tried to convince her new husband to go to the hospital during the layover in Miami, he decided to press on to New York. Cola said he knew he didn't have Ebola and he was still convinced he had some minor illness that would be dissipate once he was hydrated.
"We landed in New York and went straight to the hospital," Cola said. He was admitted and hooked up to an IV. After a few hours of tests and monitoring, he said the doctor returned with an entourage of other medical professionals, and they began grilling the couple with questions.
Aly said a team of about 20 specialists came in and said "you need to tell us everything about your trip — where you were, what animals you were around, what you ate, every activity you did."
Then they were told Cola was in kidney failure. He was treated for the mosquito-borne disease dengue fever, also known as breakbone fever. The symptoms of the disease are fever, headache, muscle and joint pains. If left untreated, it can progress into a life-threatening hemorrhagic fever.
"It literally feels like your bones are breaking," Cola said. "They describe it as bone crushing pain."
While Cola had an IV to keep him hydrated and medication to manage the pain, he said there was nothing to do but wait to let the disease work through his system. The hope was once the dengue fever was gone, he would regain kidney function.
"I think that's where my head was most of the time — I was just hoping I regained kidney function," Cola said.
Between the fever and the pain medication, Cola said he was in a fog and not fully aware of what was going on. Aly, however, said she was very aware and becoming increasingly worried.
"I was just in disbelief," she said. "I just couldn't believe it was happening. I couldn't believe how it happened. He only had like one bite on him. I was covered from head to toe in mosquito bites, so you figure if anyone should have gotten sick it should have been me."
Doctors told the couple that they didn't think he would regain kidney function after about a week of monitoring and blood tests four times a day.
Bad to Worse
Cola said he was diagnosed with stage 5 chronic kidney disease, which meant his kidney function was less than 20 percent. He learned he would eventually need a new kidney or have to go on dialysis for the rest of his life.
Cola and his wife believe his CKD was caused by dengue fever, which is made worse when a patient has had a different strain of the disease before. Cola believes he got the disease while in the Dominican Republic the year prior.
"For someone to go from good kidney function to end-stage kidney function at this age is not common," Cola said.
Aly got tested right away only to find that she wasn't a match, but as luck would have it, she was a match for an individual who was part of a complex kidney exchange.
A complex kidney exchange involves multiple donors and patients. This way Aly could donate a kidney to someone else and Cola could still benefit by receiving a kidney from another donor in the exchange. There were eight individuals involved in the exchange, creating a sort donation chain.
"It was crazy. We had what we thought was perfect timing," Aly said.
A few days before the surgery, in May of 2015, Cola was informed that there was a chance that his donor had tuberculosis. The exchange was called off after much debate among his doctors.
His hopes were raised once again when a kidney became available on his birthday in June, but that fell through as well.
"It was a waiting game," Aly said. "We couldn't do anything and the longer it went on the less hope we had."
And so they waited.
Air Force Master Sgt. Henry Windels, a loadmaster, heard about Cola's condition in June.
The two airmen had attended water survival and parachute training together four years before, but both described their relationship at the time as acquaintances.
"I'd seen him around here, but I didn't know him," Windels said.
Windels heard that Cola was sick, but didn't know to what extent until someone else mentioned Cola needed a kidney. Approximately 12 years earlier, Windels said he'd read a story about someone who donated a kidney to a complete stranger.
"It seemed like a noble thing to do, and I was interested, but it never really went anywhere," Windels said. He said he called Cola shortly after he found out about the situation.
Cola thought Windels was reaching out to show support, but when the two spoke, Windels asked how he could get tested to see if he was a match.
"I told him to think about it, and see how it would affect [his military status], but at that point, I knew he had his mind made up," Cola said. "I got the feeling he already did his soul-searching beforehand."
Tests and More Tests
The doctors said that Windels would most likely be a match since he was a universal blood donor, and they began the long testing and preparation process shortly after they spoke.
Windels was put through numerous tests over the next three months.
He had dozens of vials of blood drawn, heart and brain scans, stress tests and meetings with a kidney specialist. He even had to meet with a psychiatrist and social worker to make sure he understood what he was doing, and that he was doing it for the right reasons.
Cola said he remained patient through the process, because he knew that his hopes could be dashed at any time, as they were before.
Windels, on the other hand, said he wanted to get under the knife as soon as possible to help his wingman. There were a number of times that he fought with the hospital to move appointments up, because he didn't want Cola to have to remain sick for longer than he had to.
"I was very relaxed compared to Henry," Cola said. "He wanted it done right away. Throughout the whole process he kept apologizing, saying 'I'm sorry this is taking so long.'"
Windels was cleared to donate in late September, and the surgery was set for Oct. 6. Cola called his kidney specialist the Saturday before to cancel his scheduled appointment on Oct. 5 and tell her the good news.
She told him it was just in time, because his kidney function was below 10 percent and she had planned to discuss him going on dialysis.
Cola said dialysis will prolong a patient's life, but it makes receiving a kidney later more difficult and there are a number of quality of life issues associated with the treatment. "It's a big strain on the body," Cola said.
The surgery took longer than expected, but there were no complications and Cola's new kidney immediately began to pick up the slack.
"The day after surgery, I've never seen him look so good or feel so good," Aly said. "He was a different person."
Cola said he is feeling much better since the surgery. He has begun to gain back the 30 pounds he lost, and his kidney function is back to normal. He said he still has some recovery and monitoring to undergo before he is cleared for work.
Windels said he recovered quickly and was back flying aboard a C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane by mid-November. He said he was given no restrictions, but will follow up regularly with a doctor to be sure everything is going as expected.
"My doctor told me just to live my life. He didn't say 'lay off salt,' or 'do this that and the other thing,'" Windels said.
The two airmen have become much closer since the surgery and now hang out together on a regular basis. They even joke that Cola, a New York Giants fan, is part New York Jets fan now that he has Windels' kidney.
Meanwhile, Cola and his wife said they are planning a fundraiser for Donate Life America, an organization dedicated to educating people on the benefits of donating and connecting them with different resources, and they have been volunteering through Volunteer New York to, among others, send care packages to troops overseas.
"I constantly think, 'What do you say to the person who literally saved your life?'" Cola said.
"I think we can only thank him and show our thanks by paying it forward," Aly said.