When Ryan and Ashley Wagner’s newborn baby was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease, the family were no stranger to illness. After all, Ryan had tragically been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer just months before his son’s birth. And at first, it seemed as if the doting dad may have died without knowing if his baby would survive into adulthood.
Back in July 2013, things were definitely happier for Ryan and Ashley, who tied the knot that month. The Illinois-based couple had first met at high school and had remained together during their college years before eventually making the decision to marry. And the following December brought more good news: the newlyweds discovered that they were expecting a baby.
However, a shock diagnosis quickly tarnished what should have been one of the best times of their lives. Specifically, doctors discovered that dad-to-be Ryan, who had complained of a stomach upset, was suffering from colon cancer. Naturally, the news devastated the couple.
Ryan was only 29 at the time, and there had been no previous record of the disease in his family. “It was a huge blow,” Ashley recalled to TODAY in February 2017. “It was really hard to digest and, of course, we were really hopeful that it was curable.”
But just five months later, their worst fears were confirmed: Ryan was suffering from a stage four cancer with no hope of remission through chemotherapy. Even worse, estimates suggested that he had only five years or so left to live. “The reality of it was too much,” Ashley admitted to TODAY.
Yet despite their awful predicament, the August 2014 birth of their son Miles buoyed the couple’s spirits. “Miles has given both us of, especially Ryan, more reason to fight,” Ashley explained to TODAY. So, for a few weeks at least, the three of them were able to settle down into a more or less regular family life.
At just five weeks old, however, little Miles too began to get sick. Still, doctors didn’t believe that it was anything overly serious – just gastroesophageal reflux, a common ailment in many babies. As a result, they prescribed him medication in the belief that he would soon feel better.
Unfortunately, though, the baby’s health continued to deteriorate. Then, aged just eight weeks old, Miles suffered a seizure. Upon investigation, it was discovered that Miles actually had a very serious condition: genetic primary hyperoxaluria. The uncommon ailment is seen in only around one in every 100,000 individuals; it causes kidney and bladder stones and can eventually lead to kidney failure.
In particular, the disease causes a surplus of oxalate, a naturally occurring substance that is normally excreted. This oxalate will eventually overwhelm the body’s organs and can even consequently cause the kidneys to fail. To treat the illness, then, Miles was taken to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
After seeing Miles’ condition, doctors agreed that he would need both a kidney and a liver transplant. In the meantime, he underwent dialysis five times each week. In January 2016, however, there was some light at the end of the tunnel, as Miles was finally able to receive his new liver.
Throughout this time, dad Ryan was undergoing grueling chemotherapy treatment. “The hardest thing is watching Ryan go through this… and there’s not much you can do,” Ashley told TODAY. “He was young, healthy and he worked out every day, and he jokes now that he feels like he is 90.”
Still, at least Miles’ prognosis would become a little less troubling; after a rocky patch, his body finally accepted his new liver. And after a period of recovery, he would be able to undergo his kidney transplant, too. At the end of six long months of recuperation, though, there was a huge snag: doctors were unable to find a suitable kidney donor for the little baby.
Understandably, the Wagners began to worry. What if they didn’t find a donor in time for Ryan to know his son was safe? So they decided that desperate times called for desperate measures. And that’s when Ashley turned to social media.
When doctors had diagnosed Ryan with cancer, the couple set up a Facebook page to keep their loved ones in the loop about how he was doing. And after Miles’ arrival, they gave out progress reports on their baby son, too. It seemed an obvious place for Ashley to turn to, then, when she posted her plea for living kidney donors.
“Is it on your bucket list to save a life?” Ashley asked in the update from summer 2016. And although it was a long shot, someone did get in touch. The selfless person was Elizabeth Wolodkiewicz, a former high school classmate of both Ashley and Ryan.
Incredibly, and after weeks of assessments, experts confirmed that Wolodkiewicz was a match for Miles. While recalling the joyous moment, Ashley told ABC News in February 2017, “There were tears of joy and relief and excitement and just thinking about the future.”
Meanwhile, when explaining the reasoning behind her heartwarming gesture, Wolodkiewicz told TODAY, “It means the world to me that Ryan gets to see Miles get a kidney. I am so happy to give Ryan more time with Miles, and for him to see his baby boy get healthy.”
And while the news was welcomed all round, it arguably meant the most to Ryan. “He’s been fighting [stage four cancer] for three years and the odds are not in his favor,” Ashley explained to ABC News. “It’s a relief for all of us but especially him. Whatever happens to him, if he passes away from cancer… he knows that his legacy will live on through him.”
So, on February 6, 2017, Miles finally got his kidney transplant. Thankfully, the procedure went to plan and both Miles and Wolodkiewicz began to recover well. And while the little boy will have to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life, if the surgery is a success he should now be free of the symptoms of primary hyperoxaluria.
And if that’s the case, a huge weight will have been lifted from the Wagners’ shoulders, and they no longer have to worry about Miles. Now, no matter what the future holds, Ryan will be able to live out the rest of his life safe in the knowledge that his son looks set on the path to recovery.