SNELLVILLE - Growing up in Alabama, siblings Ahlania and Trenton Thomas were always close. But as adults, they're closer than ever.
That's because Trenton has Ahlania's kidney.
After being diagnosed with kidney problems last December, Trenton, an Iraq war veteran, desperately needed a kidney transplant. And out of his three sisters, Ahlania was the only one with the correct blood type.
"When you're siblings, there's just no question," she said.
Trenton entered the U.S. Army before graduating high school, following in the footsteps of his father, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He briefly deployed to Kuwait in 1994 and served in Iraq from February to July of 2004.
Before his Iraq deployment, the Army had discovered symptoms of kidney problems, but he said no further tests were conducted. And in Iraq, the heat and diet of MREs worsened his condition.
"In actuality my kidneys were failing," he said.
Finally, in December 2005, Trenton was unable to give blood because of high blood pressure. After running some tests, he was hospitalized in Texas, where he was taking an officer training course. He was on dialysis for six months before his operation.
When it was determined that Ahlania was the correct blood type to be a donor, she quit her job as an optical technician and headed to Washington, D.C., for the operation. Ahlania and Trenton stayed at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where thousands of military personnel have been treated since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.
Ahlania said getting surgery was scary, although she tried to keep her fears to herself. Shortly before surgery, she confided in her aunt, "I haven't told anyone this, but I'm scared as hell."
At midnight on June 20, intravenous tubes were inserted into Ahlania and Trenton, and neither ate for the next two days. Right before the operation, the doctor gave Ahlania a double shot of tequila, her favorite drink.
"That was the best tequila I ever had," she said.
On June 22 the doctors conducted the transplant, which took 10 hours.
In the days following the operation, the siblings were encouraged to get up and walk around. Despite the pain, she and her brother made a pact to walk around the whole ward without stopping, looking "like two old people" as they made their way around the hospital, Ahlania said.
About a week or two after the operation, Trenton and his family moved into the guest house near the hospital, where a strong communal atmosphere had developed among the patients. Trenton's wife, Denise, said many patients were missing limbs or eyes.
"It was pretty humbling," she said. "You never get used to the injuries you saw."
When July 4 came around, the family was taken to the top of a building near the White House to watch the fireworks.
"They just rolled out the red carpet," Trenton said.
Ahlania returned home to Snellville on July 17, where she is staying with her mother as she recuperates.
"I'm only working on one kidney now," she said. "I can't do the things I used to do."
Meanwhile, Trenton is in Clarksville, Tenn., where he has to drive 60 miles to Nashville for follow-up appointments. In January he plans to continue pursuing a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. It will be another 18 months before he could possibly return to active duty, but he's not sure in what capacity he will be able to serve.
Ahlania is also thinking about joining the military, either as a medic or in an administrative position. Almost everyone in the Thomas family is either employed by the military or has married someone who is.
Despite the distance between the siblings, Ahlania and Trenton have grown much closer. They talk often, and Ahlania often jokingly reminds her older brother to take good care of her kidney.
Said Denise, "It's almost like they've gotten to know each other all over again."