Natalie and Kendricks meet for the first time just prior to their respective kidney surgeries.
How far are you willing to go to sacrifice yourself for others? As a Teamster, it’s usually pretty far. Our members, especially those who have toiled in person throughout the pandemic, know something about dedicating themselves to their families and communities.
But Natalie Luvaas, a Teamster corrections officer and shop steward at SCORE jail, takes altruism to another level. Natalie is the kind of person who instinctively dives into the frozen river to save a child or runs into the burning building. In a recent act of heroism, Natalie donated one of her kidneys to a 22-year Navy veteran.
Donating a kidney to a sick family member or close friend is one thing, but in Natalie’s case, the recipient was someone she didn't know. “I have always felt a strong respect and admiration for people who have dedicated their lives to our country,” she says with conviction.
“If I can give back to them, I will in any way I can.”
Natalie’s journey toward self-sacrifice started early. After a rocky childhood, her godparents showed her what life could be like if she made the right choices.
With their influence, Natalie moved into a career in public safety, which is how she met Damon Hewin, a detective at the Auburn Police Department and proud father of six. “I didn’t know for a while that Damon was ill,” Natalie recalls. When she learned he was in dire need of a kidney transplant, she didn’t hesitate to step up.
Damon (l), Natalie, and Kendricks (r) posing with a kidney pillow from Dove Transplants.
Natalie thought if she offered her kidney, Damon would have a chance at survival. In the end, he didn’t need it. Thanks to the work of Sharyn Kreitzer at Dove Transplant, a non-profit that helps facilitate organ transplants for veterans, 80 people came forward for Damon, and he was able to find a perfect match.
Natalie's story could have ended there. Instead, she told her doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center that, if the need arose, she'd be willing to donate to another individual. “I told them Damon was my priority, but if I wasn’t a match, I wanted to help someone else." Not long after, she got a call from the hospital. A patient with stage five kidney disease needed a transplant. She jumped on a plane and headed back to Walter Reed.
DONOR AND RECIPIENT MEET
Before her procedure, Natalie met the recipient of her kidney face to face. His name was Kendricks Brown, a 5’3” man with a big heart. “He instantly gave me a hug,” Natalie recalls. “He started crying and said thank you over and over.”
The two hit it off immediately. They talked for two hours, sharing life stories and a lot of laughs. Kendricks’ need for a kidney was urgent. He had refused a previous donation because he wanted a more severely diseased vet to receive it. But this time he couldn’t wait. His doctors told him his disease was so advanced, he could die at any time.
Before her surgery, Natalie was asked dozens of times if she wanted to follow through. There was never a doubt. The procedure went well. It was 100% robotic with minimal scarring, but the recovery was incredibly painful for the first couple of days.
Now that she’s feeling better, Natalie is on cloud nine. She’s had messages on Facebook, Instagram, and texts from all over the world. Many of them are from Guam, where Kendricks’ wife was born. People everywhere are expressing their gratitude and calling her sister.
With their transplants behind them, Damon and Kendricks are doing well. Natalie has a 4-6 week recovery window, and then she'll be headed back to work. The experience has only made her more committed to a life of service. As she says, “With all of the loud negativity going on, I know a single person can be the change they want to see in this world.”
Read more on Natalie's Instagram feed: @livingdonorsforvets.
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