You may see Bryan Stegehuis around the Windsor Central High School campus. The 2005 graduate is a strength coach who oversees the Bend the Bar afterschool weightlifting program, as well as trains the football, track and volleyball teams.
What you don’t see is what happened to him on his way back home: the Air Force commission, the coordination of drone missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, and the years-long near-death struggle with an incurable disease that has left him with a philosophy he shared Tuesday with members of the Windsor Strong Academy.
“Life is a gift. Enjoy it,” said Stegehuis.
The retired Air Force officer traced his steps from Windsor to the Military and back again for the Windsor Strong students.
“If anyone saw me up here talking right now, they would lose their mind. I was voted Most Shy. It’s right there in the yearbook,” said Stegehuis, talking over a slide with a picture from his yearbook.
Stegehuis attended Norwich University, a private military college in Vermont. It was a life-changing experience that gave him three elements that would prove pivotal in the years ahead: friendships, a love of physical fitness and confidence.
“Like I said, I was a shy kid in high school. That gets beat out of you real quick at Norwich,” said Stegehuis. “The most important thing I took away from Norwich is friendships – the people. There’s something different about the people you meet there.”
From Norwich, Stegehuis became a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force. He went to Intelligence School in 2009, then to Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas where he worked on drones. He was a Mission Intelligence Coordinator. He coordinated between pilots and ground forces to authorize strikes on the enemy. He was involved in drone missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from Creech AFB.
He also became a CrossFit instructor and trained at a number of gyms in Las Vegas.
“I had my perfect job. I was furthering my fitness goals. Things could not have been going better,” said Stegehuis. “But, then, plot twist.”
In 2010, Stegehuis was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He experienced vomiting, itching and his skin was breaking out. Doctors said he had bug bites. After he came home for his great grandmother’s 100th birthday, his mother noticed his eyes were yellow. Doctors removed his gallbladder but his health didn’t improve.
On January 3, 2011, doctors finally diagnosed the problem - Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a chronic disease that slowly damages the bile ducts.
Stegehuis needed a liver transplant and was medically retired from the Air Force. PSC also came with symptoms.
“Think of the worst itch you’ve had and multiply it by 100. I would give myself rug burn trying to get rid of the itch. I’d scratch myself until I had blisters,” said Stegehuis.
But Stegehuis was fairly stable until July 6, 2016.
“I Started feeling sick, got hot, sweaty. I went to the VA hospital in Syracuse and started profusely vomiting blood,” said Stegehuis. “I remember everything fading to black, tunnel vision. That’s all I remember.”
He suffered massive internal bleeding and was rushed to Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse where he was put on life support. He says the doctors and nurses saved his life.
“The doctor said it was the single-most important case he’s had at Upstate,” said Stegehuis.
Stegehuis posted a picture of himself in recovery on Facebook.
“Little did I know that was the most important thing I’ve ever done,” said Stegehuis.
Lauren Musso, an old friend from Norwich and a nurse in the Navy, messaged Stegehuis. She asked Stegehuis his blood type.
“I never thought about it again,” said Stegehuis. “A couple of months later she messaged me back and said, ‘I’m going to be a live liver donor.’”
The kidney and liver are the only organs that allow for a living donor.
Doctors scheduled the transplant at Lahey Hospital in Burlington, MA for January 23, 2017.
“All I had to do was make it to then,” said Stegehuis.
But on January 3rd he started vomiting again and ended up at Lourdes ICU. He took a LifeFlight to Lahey, where he vomited blood again. Doctors had to push back the transplant a week.
“I was like, ‘Man, am I going to make it?” said Stegehuis.
He did. The transplant took three days, as doctors had to remove Stegehuis’ spleen to get to his liver.
“I was under this weird impression that I would get my transplant and be miraculously better. Wrong again. Recovery was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” said Stegehuis.
He couldn’t eat for about a month. He received nutrients via a tube through his nose. But, both Stegehuis and Musso recovered nicely, with the remainder of their livers growing back to 100 percent.
“She put her life on the line for me. She’s a hero to me, that’s for sure,” said Stegehuis, who said he probably wouldn't be alive if he had to wait for a traditional donor.
Stegehuis urged the students to sign up to be organ donors when they turn 16, and tell others to do the same.
“You guys are here to be community leaders. Speak to the community about this. Talk to you parents about signing up. When you’re 16, sign up. If you want to organize something, go ahead,” said Stegehuis.
But he also had one more message for the students.
“Life is good,” said Stegehuis.