Editor’s Note: This article is part of a feature called Follow-up in which BDN staff update stories with new developments.
HUDSON, Maine — It looked like a typical Memorial Day weekend cookout in rural Maine. Several generations of Jeffrey Buzzell’s extended family swapped stories while cheeseburgers sizzled on the grill. American flags flapped in a cool breeze outside the big garage where the picnic tables were set up. The rain held off and the black flies, mercifully, stayed away.
But there was an added layer of meaning, or several, to this particular holiday get-together on Saturday. For one thing, 16-year-old Jeffrey is doing just fine after a kidney transplant back in February. For another, his 28-year-old sister Jen, who donated one of her kidneys to her little brother, also is fully recovered and was enjoying the party at her aunt’s home.
And, helping himself to the chips and macaroni salad, was 25-year-old Sgt. Raymond Christie of Wilmington, North Carolina, visiting Maine for the very first time to meet the Buzzell family in person, although he has been corresponding with them for close to a year.
Last July, Christie, a parachute rigger, was serving a tour of duty at the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
“I was getting ready to leave on a mission,” he recalled Saturday, “when I saw that ESPN was about to air a “My Wish” segment.” The series features kids in the Make-A-Wish program for children with life-threatening conditions.
“I’ve always been a fan,” Christie said, “so I waited to watch it.”
The episode that day featured young Jeffrey Buzzell in far-away Hermon, Maine, and described his family’s long struggle with Alport syndrome, a genetic disorder that has severely damaged his kidney function. At the time, Jeffery was in line for a kidney transplant, though no donor had been identified. Make-A-Wish had stepped in to raise awareness of the disease, alert potential donors, and bring the car-crazy teenager and his family to Charlotte, NC, to meet NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I saw Jeffrey and I decided that I wanted to help somehow,” Christie said. “I am so impressed that someone his age can handle the situation the way he does with the most positive outlook. Being in a war zone is hard, it takes its toll, but people like Jeffery are fighting battles that are just as serious — or more serious — and doing it with such grace.”
Christie has been in continuous contact with the Buzzell family ever since, setting up a Facebook prayer page and talking with them often using the online phone service Skype. The family’s situation inspired Christie’s unit at Bagram, he said, and helped them all feel connected to life beyond the war zone.
While he was still in Afghanistan, Christie said, he decided that he would come visit the family once he got back home. And on Saturday, there he was with his girlfriend Whitney Cook, eating corn chips and buffalo wings in the smoke from the grill.
“When Raymond first connected with Jeffrey, it was almost like he was family at first contact,” said Jeffery’s mother, Ruth Buzzell. “And when he said to Jeffrey ‘some day I want to meet you,’ it was genuine.”
Ruth Buzzell’s family has been deeply affected by Alport syndrome: she lost her mother and a brother to the disease, and two other brothers have undergone kidney transplants. She is grateful that her two daughters, both of whom were prepared to give up a kidney for their brother, are free of the genetic mutation.
Jeffrey’s overall health has improved since the transplant, but he still faces an uncertain future, she said.
“We take it a day at a time. We have to,” she said. “We never know what tomorrow will bring.”
Jeffrey visits Maine Medical Center in Portland weekly to be sure his body is accepting his sister’s kidney. He said the relationship with Christie has been a powerful support to him and his family during a hard time and the Facebook connection has brought him in contact with hundreds of well-wishers.
“I never thought it would come down to actually meeting him,” he said, watching Christie chat with his family members.
Christie said he would be heading back to North Carolina on Sunday but hopes to visit Maine again and also to bring Jeffrey down to visit him in North Carolina.
“I knew this was going to be a big family with open arms,” he said. “I look at Jeffrey now like he’s my little brother. It’s a bond that was forged 9,000 miles away, and it’s only going to get stronger.”
An earlier version of this story had incorrect information in the first photo’s caption. Jeffrey Buzzell is 16-years-old, not 15.