HARTFORD, Conn. –
For Connecticut Army National Guard Sgt. Luis Gonzalez Jr., selfless service is not just some term to throw around. Gonzalez , 28, originally from Manchester, Connecticut, works as a retail sales consultant for AT&T in Bellingham, Massachusetts. When he is not selling cell phones, he commutes back to Connecticut to serve as a motor transport operator with the 1048th Medium Transportation Company.
Gonzalez enlisted on April 5, 2018 after graduating from Eastern Connecticut State University with a bachelor’s in communications.
“[Enlisting was] something I always wanted to do, I had thought of doing it back in high school,” explained Gonzalez.. “I figured it was time to finally do it and create my own path in the military.”
His older brother, Giovanni, a motor transport operator with the Massachusetts Army National Guard, influenced his decision to join.
“He was my inspiration. Seeing what he did with the Army, following in his footsteps was my ultimate goal at the end of the day,” said Gonzalez “Seeing him in his unit and driving the trucks, that was pretty cool, I want to do that … I want to be the guy driving those trucks.”
It would not be long before Gonzalez Jr. would have the opportunity to be part of something larger than himself. Gonzalez was activated to assist in COVID relief operations. For about a year and a half, he traveled around Connecticut distributing COVID relief supplies at hospitals, vaccine sites and municipalities. Additionally, he was activated during the January 6 insurrection and called up to defend Connecticut’s capital against any potential attacks.
“Being part of the bigger picture made me feel I was doing something right,” explained Gonzalez. “It just felt like it was right.”
However, perhaps Gonzalez Jr.’s most important action was yet to come.
Gonzalez Jr. 's father, Luis Gonzalez Sr., who struggled with diabetes since he was young, was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease, or CKD, in 2021. Unable to find a potential donor by 2022, Gonzalez Jr. and his four siblings decided to get tested to see if they, themselves, would be able to donate an organ.
“That was a heartbreak,” Gonzalez Jr. continued. “Realizing one day his kidneys will fail and no longer be here, that was a hard pill to swallow. We, as a family, came together and tried to figure out options for him.”
Gonzalez Jr. was the only potential match. After hearing the news, he began the long process of becoming certified to donate his organs.
On July 3, 2023, Gonzalez Sr.’s condition deteriorated as he suffered a mild heart attack and was hospitalized for about a week due to his heart being unable to pump blood properly. The situation was looking grim. Thankfully, a few days later, a glimmer of hope broke through the clouds.
On July 7, 2023, two years after Gonzalez Sr. was diagnosed with CKD, Gonzalez Jr. was medically cleared to donate his kidney. After receiving the news, he immediately began talking to the living donor coordinator to push the surgery sooner than anticipated. Just three weeks from getting cleared, Gonzalez Jr. was able to get a surgery date.
“If I hadn’t done that, he would have had to go on dialysis,” explained Gonzalez Jr. “If things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to, he could have passed.”
The night prior to the operation, Gonzalez Jr. and his family stayed in a hotel near the hospital. Tension and nervousness filled the air.
“Is this really about to happen,” said Gonzalez Jr. “I’m about to go under and come out with one less organ.”
The surgery took about four hours, starting at 7:30 in the morning and ending around noon. Two surgeons worked on the pair, whose rooms were adjacent to each other. This was Gonzalez Jr.'s first major surgery. The only surgery he had prior was getting his wisdom teeth removed.
By the end of the procedure, Gonzalez Jr. had four incisions: one for the surgical instruments, one for a camera, one for the gas tube used to inflate his chest cavity so the surgical team could perform the operation, and lastly, one large incision for the removal of his kidney. Post procedure, Gonzalez Jr. rested in the hospital for three days before being released. Two days later, he wound up back in the hospital due to complications from all the medications he was given.
“I was 90% backed up,” said Gonzalez Jr.. “Generally sore and in pain from surgery.”
In the end, it all paid off. Gonzalez Sr. went from 4% kidney function to 80% over the span of two days following the procedure.
“I can see it in how he moves around, there is a difference,” explained Gonzalez Jr. “He’s a fighter for sure. He has been doing great, he has been laughing, moving around, stuff he wasn’t doing before due to the stress levels he had. It is nice to see him as his old self. Hopefully, he doesn’t have any other huge scares in the future but we are capable and ready if anything happens.”
The next step for Gonzalez Jr. is recovery. During the operation, the surgical team cut through seven layers of his muscle. Now he can’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds and has to maintain a healthy diet. Day-to-day tasks we all take for granted, like standing and sitting, or even going up flights of stairs, now have to be done in moderation.
This will be Gonzalez Jr.'s way of life until January 2024, though he doesn’t mind it so much as he now spends more time bonding with his father. The pair spend their recovery time together, mainly watching sports on TV and going out to get ice cream with other members of the family.
When Gonzalez Jr. isn’t spending time with his blood family, he is spending time talking to his “military family”, the soldiers and leaders of his unit, who have supported him since he informed them of his decision to donate his kidney.
“My entire unit, every single one of them, was there to comfort me,” explained Gonzalez Jr. “All the way from 1st Sgt. [Alexander] Fatone, all the way down to my soldiers.”
The experience has “humbled” Gonzalez Jr. It made him realize just how important family is and helped him better understand the struggles those suffering with illnesses, and the burdens the family members and friends of those struggling with those illnesses, carry. Now, he wants to make sure no one has to go through that experience alone.
“At the end of the day, if anybody is in the process of having a family member going through something exactly like this, I’ll be there no matter what, even with one less kidney. I’ll be there for you,” said Gonzalez Jr. “My dad was a role model to me, if I can be a role model to anyone else I want to be there for people if they need me, at the end of the day.”