WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
As new parents, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Anthony Gauna Jr., 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron instruments and flight controls technician, and his wife, Kerri Gauna knew their son would be special and they would do anything for him.
Anthony Gauna III had low fluid levels and an irregular heart rate which was discovered six months into the pregnancy. After his birth, Anthony spent the first three months of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit.
After going home, Anthony had to return to the hospital every two or three weeks. He suffered from a number of health problems including a hole in his heart and urinary tract issues, which caused extensive damage to his kidneys.
Throughout the doctor's appointments and trips to the hospital, Gauna’s chain of command supported the family so they could find the cause of these problems.
“It took all of us as co-workers, supervisors, shop chiefs, and flight chiefs,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Tanner Vandertuig, 509th AMXS wing maintenance tactics manager. “Supporting Anthony was a family effort. Avionics is a very close-knit group of individuals that take care of each other. Coordinating to make sure that there was shift coverage to support the mission is the easy part. Anthony and his son really had the hard part.”
Vandertuig added they reached out to ensure the Gauna Family had everything they needed so they could focus on their recovery without worrying about work.
“It’s extremely important we take care of our Airmen and their families,” said Vandertuig. “Our families are the ones we serve our country to protect. They keep us going, they motivate us and they support us. One day, we will all hang up the uniform for the last time. When that day comes, we need our family to be by our side. That is why it’s so important to always be by theirs.”
With support from their Air Force family, the Gauna family was able to concentrate on getting Anthony the medical attention he needs.
During his visits to the hospital and after extensive testing it was discovered the cause of Anthony’s medical issues was Edward’s Syndrome or partial trisomy 18.
Partial trisomy 18 occurs when the body has duplicated some but not all of chromosome 18, due to only part of the genetic code being copied the symptoms can vary. According to the Centers for Disease Control, trisomy 18 is the second most common chromosomal disorder, after Down Syndrome, occurring with a frequency of one in 5,000 live births.
Anthony’s trisomy 18 symptoms damaged his kidneys and required a kidney transplant, which the family hoped could come from his father.
“I was a section chief in avionics when Anthony was born,” said Vandertuig. “That little guy had a rough start and was fighting hard. Gauna was there doing everything he could and took care of his family. Fast forward to last year, I was back in the Avionics Section as superintendent and Anthony was still fighting. Gauna stepped up to the plate and donated his kidney to his son. There is a lot to be said for his selfless dedication.”
Gauna and his son went into surgery in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 16, 2020.
“My son Anthony is the second trisomy 18 patient ever to receive a kidney transplant,” said Gauna. “This surgery can be used as part of a medical precedent to save lives in the future, and is proof it can be done on T18 patients.”
Gauna’s mother, Janette Gauna supported him throughout the ordeal.
“My son, is a hero. Plain and simple.” said Janette. “He has risked his life, well-being and military career for the life of his son. Without his bravery and selflessness, we would have lost our little Anthony. I do not think any of us can understand the risks my son took, without hesitation, to let his little boy not only live but thrive.”
Following the surgery both Gauna and Anthony went through a recovery period while their bodies adjusted to the changes. Gauna experienced a loss of energy as his body adapted to having a single kidney. Anthony recovered quickly and gained back his energy as he adapted to his new kidney.
While going through the surgery along with the challenges beforehand and afterwards, the Gauna family received support from both inside their family and their Air Force family.
Vandertuig supported the Gauna family by being there for them, checking in on them regularly, and made it possible for Gauna to go to all of his son’s appointments.
“We have a very close knit family that relies on each other to hold everyone up,” said Janette. “Prayer is a big part of this. These times did not just start, they began when Kerri found out she was pregnant.”
Before any of the medical complications came up, she knew they would need support from the family as they were a young family far from home.
“Anthony and Kerri have been so brave and have learned so much about how to deal with health, finance, physical, mental and emotional issues,” said Janette. “As parents, we helped as much as we could from so far away. We prayed daily for them and talked with them often to encourage and lift them up. We made visits to Missouri as often as we could and just loved on them.”
She added that the family pulled together time, resources, finances and skills to help work on Gauna’s home in Missouri while they were busy with appointments and work obligations.
With the care from his family, Anthony has been able to fight through the challenges he’s faced.
“Anthony is the most precious little man I know,” said Janette. “And I call him a little man because no child should have to go through all of the health and developmental challenges he has at such a young age. He has always been a curious and active little guy, but since the surgery he has blossomed into a vivacious, active sweetheart. The difference between pre-surgery and now is monumental. The one thing that did not change was his love for everyone, he just has the energy and stamina to express it so much more now.”
Anthony’s maturity and strength through everything has inspired his family and brought them closer together.
“This journey is far from over, there are still many hurdles for Anthony to overcome but he is the most resilient person I know. Tougher than any grown man,” said Gauna. “He has endured all of this with a smile and a rock solid will that nothing will stop him. At 3 years old, with 18 surgeries completed, he has lived life more than almost anyone.”
Six months after the operation Gauna and his son underwent a series of tests to ensure their bodies have accepted their side of the transplant.
“That’s another huge obstacle cleared and he is good to go for six months,” said Gauna. “His heart is in good enough shape the cardio team doesn’t need to see him for two years which is a huge milestone”
Because of these successes, Anthony can now enjoy activities like fishing and give hope to other families with trisomy 18.
Following Anthony’s lead and with the support of their family, friends and the Air Force, the Gauna family were able to stay strong and resilient to ensure their son got all the care and help he needed.