The Gift of a Lifetime - United Hub

The gift of a lifetime

By Matt Adams, November 13, 2018

The last thing Newark-based Flight Attendant Jair Ripoll wanted to do was ask for help on social media. It just didn't seem right to him, airing his personal pain like that for everyone to see. But on a layover last fall, his friends and colleagues, Newark-based Flight Attendants Frank Luff and Colleen McClelland, urged him — pleaded, actually — to post news of his condition to Facebook in the hope of a miracle.

Ten years ago, Jair was diagnosed with a hereditary kidney disease. He was told at that time he would need a transplant as the disease progressed, but he had been unable to find a friend or family member who could donate one of their kidneys. Jair registered on the organ waiting list in Florida, where his family lives, praying that his name would be called before it was too late. With each passing year, the situation became more desperate.

At work, Jair kept the severity of his condition to himself. Flying was his safe place. The time he spent in the sky provided him a welcomed break from the fears surrounding his health. Frank and Colleen were shocked when he confided in them how sick he was.

"Colleen said, 'You never know how many angels are out there,'" Jair said, recalling how she encouraged him to tell his story on Facebook where his friends and fellow employees could read it and, hopefully, a potential donor would emerge. Jair was reticent, but Colleen and Frank convinced him by taking his phone and writing the post for him. Less than a minute after they published it, a message alert flashed across Jair's phone's screen. Someone had already replied.

"Steven was the first person to respond," Jair said. "I saw it and showed it to Colleen and Frank, and we all started crying."

Jair had flown with fellow Flight Attendant Steven Lepine many times and considered him a friend, but he never expected that Steven would be the first person to offer him the chance at a healthy life.

"I knew Jair had been sick, but I didn't know the extent of it," Steven said. "I felt like he was putting so much on the line with that Facebook post, and I just wanted to help him."

When Jair returned home to New Jersey, the two met for lunch and talked about what the transplant process entailed, including the battery of tests that Steven would need to undergo to make sure his kidney would be a good match for Jair.

"My family — my mother, especially — was worried," Steven said. "She knew the risks, but she also knew that once I decide something, I don't go back."

Things were going well until last October, when Jair's health took a sudden turn during a trip to Barcelona. When he got home, he barely had the strength to move. His friend, Flight Attendant Stephanie Torres, rushed him to the hospital in North Bergen, New Jersey, where doctors discovered that Jair had deadly levels of toxins in his body. They immediately put him on dialysis while Steven continued his tests. Finally, at the beginning of November, they got the call from the doctors at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, where the transplant was to take place: Steven was fully cleared. The procedure was scheduled for December 6.

At 6 a.m. on the day of the surgery, Jair and Steven met in the pre-operation room. Joining them were Steven's mother, his close friend and fellow Flight Attendant Jon Little, and Jair's mother and brother, setting up the first meeting of the families. Though there was a language barrier — Jair's mother only speaks Spanish, Steven's only English — the emotions that filled the space needed no translation. "Steven's mom said to me, 'Now you become my son as well,'" Jair said.

A few hours later, they emerged from the operating room. The transplant had been a success, though the recovery process would be long. Steven returned to work in January and Jair should be cleared to fly again this month. The two talk almost daily, checking in on one another and offering encouragement.

"Jair is my blood brother now," said Steven. "We'll always have this connection."

Jon Little, who stayed by Steven's bedside during the operation, has remained in awe of his friend. "He's a very giving soul," Jon said of Steven. "He's an amazing person, but this took him to a whole new level. He's so modest, he says it's not a big deal, but this is probably one of the most incredible things I've ever seen."

Steven does indeed downplay what he did, and in talking with him you get a sense of the selfless determination that compelled him toward such an incredible act.

"I look at it as helping out another person," he said. "I'm not looking for recognition or anything like that. I never dreamed that I would do something like this, but the moment presented itself and the need was there, and I felt like I had to step up to the plate."

But for Jair, it was more than that. Much more. Because of Steven's gift, his life is forever changed and he struggles with how to adequately express his gratitude. "I don't even have the words, or know how to thank him for something like this," Jair said.

"The reason we want this story told is because we want it to be an example to other people at the airline," he continued. "The people you work with really do become your family. If someone has a problem, I hope our story will help them find the courage to come forward and ask for help. It's like Colleen told me: You never know who your angels are."

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