As I look at my journal laid out before me, the journey feels much longer than the dated entries I've gone back to record. Perhaps that's the way of the journeys that really matter, they start long before we are ever aware.
As best as I can recollect the timeline, it started for me when I read the following Facebook post on November 25th, 2020 by Karen Ward, Alan's mother:
There has to be someone out there that reads this post that is inspired to be a life saver for you, Alan. I pray for a donor to step forward. Six years is an eternity to be connected to those machines. And thank God for them keeping you alive. Please world, my son needs a kidney. There has got to be a live donor match for you soon.
I remember reading the post and immediately being moved by the plea. I was vaguely familiar with Alan's situation. Alan's mom is a good friend of my mother-in-law and they both live in Kansas, about 6 hours away. But through the friendship, I've naturally heard bits and pieces of Alan's story and the plight of polycystic kidney disease (PKD), but I hadn't given it much thought. Alan lives in Texas and I had only met him once before when we were all in Kansas for the holidays, visiting our respective families. While the visit was nice, it was also ordinary.
But when I read the post that day, something in my spirit shifted and I had a strange thought..."I wonder if I should consider being the donor?" But it was a thought that was as easily dismissed...as it had arrived. After all, I knew virtually nothing about PKD, living donation, or most importantly...Alan.
And so...that's where I can trace the beginning of this journey. And yet, I sense I've dropped into one of those journeys that really matter, a journey that started long ago.
As I went back to that November post today, to confirm the date and content, a comment beneath the post caught my attention. An encouragement to Alan from Carol, my mother-in-law:
Alan, I pray daily for that perfect kidney and ask how long do we have to wait for it. Then I am reminded that God’s timing is perfect so we continue to pray and ask as He promises, “Ask and ye shall receive.”
It was December 26th, 2020. As the Christmas meal preparations were underway, my mother-in-law asked if we would feel comfortable, because of the pandemic, if she invited Karen to join us for dinner. Karen was unable to celebrate Christmas with her sons due to various health concerns, circumstances and well...Covid. "Absolutely," I said. No one should celebrate Christmas alone!
So Karen came and we enjoyed all the holiday fixins. Ham gravy being the most important one! The conversation ebbed and flowed, like conversations do and Karen naturally started talking about her kids, which circled around to Alan, and the need for a donor. I was compassionately interested, but simultaneously removed...after all, I don't really know Alan.
There have been a few times in my life when something was said, and no one seemed to notice except me. As the conversation moves forward...the words forgotten or unnoticed by others...become the only words remembered by me. I guess that's how I'd describe the next sentence that Karen spoke.
"Women who have never been pregnant are more likely to match."
I doubt anyone else around the table remembers that sentence. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not even sure those are the exact words she spoke, but those are the words that etched into my mind. After experiencing years of unexplained infertility, it was not lost on me that I had never been pregnant.
I'm not sure where exactly the conversation flowed from there because for me, it stood still.
Surely the Lord was not calling me to this. It's not that I didn't want help to come for Alan, but surely it would come in a different package than me, my body, my kidney. The conversation and meal concluded, but the invitation lingered...what was I to do with such a prompting? Were those words meant for me?
To be honest, I wanted to dismiss it. It had come from left field and didn't really concern me. I was connecting dots that weren't meant to be connected. I let my mind rattle through the resistance...I don't know Alan. I know nothing about kidney disease. I very much value my own health and wellbeing - something I've always been grateful for and do not take for granted. Nah. Nope. No. This can't be of God. The only sensible thing to do here is to dismiss the subtle yet persistent promptings. But how?
The answer seemed to come as quick as the question.
I'll tell my husband!
You have to know that of the 100 ideas I have on a regular basis, the Holy Spirit has used my husband to help discern the one or two that I should actually pursue. Don't get me wrong, my husband is fully supportive of me and yes, even of some of my wild ideas, but I've learned that sometimes support comes in the form of discerning wisdom...to know when to say no. And when it came to this kidney donation...I was pretty sure he'd say no. And just like that, it would be dismissed. Done.
I waited until we got home from Kansas, and it was just the two of us around our table. I told him about the burden I had begun to feel and the stirring to possibly inquire...as crazy as it sounded...I couldn't help but wonder, if it wasn't supposed to be me. And then I paused...
And I was pretty sure I knew his response. We could chalk this up to another one of my crazy ideas.
But that wasn't his reaction.
"I can't think of a nicer family to do that for."
Wait. What? You were supposed to say no.
We made a plan to talk to our doctor friends as a first next step. A husband-wife duo serve as our friends and fellow Raiders fans, as well as our urgent care doc and primary care physician. They happened to invite us over to watch the Raiders play the Broncos on Jan 3, 2021. The timing seemed perfect. While I try not to abuse our friendship with a million personal health questions outside the doctor's office, I figured they wouldn't mind the inquiry.
Somewhere before Darren Waller secured Carr's 2-point conversion pass, with 24 seconds left, and we snagged the 32-31 victory in Denver, I floated the question into the air. Once again, I half anticipated a negative response. They are both wonderful doctors, but I consider them first friends, and from a friend's perspective, I think I anticipated them to start with the risks. But that isn't where they began.
As it turns out, our doctor buddy had considered being a kidney donor himself for a friend of his in need, and had even started the cross-match process. In the end, the recipient's brother was a closer match so he didn't pursue it further. He shared a bit more about the experience and his perspective and then made the following comment, "It's like the perfect organ, you have two, but only need one."
I remember the way his words landed in my spirit...and I responded privately, "Ok God, you have my attention - speak, I am listening."
Along my faith journey, I've had people ask me how I know when God is speaking, how I discern between my own thoughts and "intuition" vs. God's. I've personally never heard the audible voice of God, but I can say with confidence that I've heard Him. It makes me think of the story Jesus tells in John 10, the story of the good shepherd and his sheep.
"The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. John 10:2-4
The sheep follow him, because they know his voice. Now if you dig into the biblical context for this passage, you'll begin to understand that Jesus was using this imagery to illustrate calling those who would follow him from the "pen" of official Judaism. He was revealing himself as the Messiah, but the Pharisees did not get it. Sadly, not all of the sheep belong to Jesus's flock - they are separated as they recognize his voice and follow him.
But, if we come back up to the surface, I think I've always loved this story because I've seen cattle respond in a similar fashion, to my dad's voice. I was raised on a beef cattle farm and dad would often need to move them from one pasture to another. He would call them, and they'd follow, because they knew the sound of his voice. I used to love watching this as a kid.
When I first began walking with the Lord, I questioned my ability to hear Him. But the longer I walked, the more familiar He became. He'd confirm through His Word, the Holy Spirit, and through others, time and time again. I learned to follow because I learned His voice. The Lord speaks to us in many ways, sometimes mysteriously, sometimes plainly, but as we get to know Him, we recognize His voice.
"Speak, for your servant is listening" 1 Samuel 3:10b
One of my long-time prayers through my faith walk has been for the Lord to open the doors I'm meant to walk through and close the doors I'm not. I've had seasons when that prayer felt scary - even as the words were tumbling from my mouth, I knew which doors I personally wanted opened and alternatively closed, and I wasn't sure those doors aligned with God's. And that's where trust comes in. Faith and surrender have always been beautiful companions.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
I needed God to open some doors. If I was going to do this, I wanted to be able to get pretty far along in the process before involving Alan. Maybe we all have some hidden Facebook stalking abilities lurking beneath the surface, and this gave mine an opportunity to shine. I wasn't FB friends with Alan, but I was with his mom, which gave me some access to his life. It didn't take me long to confirm which kidney transplant center I needed to contact and begin the process. On January 4th, I took a deep breath and submitted the confidential health history questionnaire.
In the course of my Facebook stalk, I also came across Alan's blood type, which is a really important factor for transplant. We matched.
On February 3rd, I went to my local lab to submit my first round of bloodwork and on February 8th I got the call from my Living Kidney Donor Coordinator, "negative crossmatch." Wait a minute...negative? She responded in her sweet southern accent, "Yes ma'am, his blood is showing no negative reaction to yours." It seems confusing at first, but a negative crossmatch means that Alan's antibodies don't attack mine, which means that we are compatible for transplant. We are a match.
If I'm honest, it didn't surprise me. It's one of those things that I can only explain through the Holy Spirit. My spirit knew before I cognitively knew that we were a match, but it was confirmation nonetheless...God was beginning to crack open the door.
Before I completed the initial bloodwork, I told my small prayer group about what I was considering. We're a group of 4 women who have become dear. We started meeting via Zoom, amid the pandemic, to pray, discern, dream, and simply do life together. So as we virtually gathered on January 15th, I shared the promptings I'd been feeling. There was a pause, tears, and praises...and then Mary shared from a book she had been reading...
Because the Kingdom is about life--abundant life, to quote Jesus--I came to realize that all of these life issues are Kingdom concerns. In Jesus' day, a Kingdom outbreak meant that the lame could walk, the blind could see, and the lepers were made whole. Because these physical conditions prevented people from working to support themselves, their disabilities doomed them to beggary and poverty. Delivering people from these maladies made a much better life possible for them.
I've thought a lot about the Kingdom of God in my walk with the Lord. What is the Kingdom you might ask? In a nutshell, it's the the fulfillment of God’s will on earth, or the spiritual realm over which God reigns as king. Think about the Lord's prayer you may have been taught as a child, "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Have you ever wondered what exactly you were praying for, or why you were taught to pray in such a way? It's actually the prayer Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6, starting with verse 9.
When we look at the gospels, the Kingdom is at the core of what Jesus is all about. In Mark, chapter 1, verse 15, we find Jesus proclaiming the good news, "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!" But it might surprise you to know that Jesus' pronouncement caused quite a bit of controversy and confusion amongst the Jewish people. They had in their mind what the Kingdom of God was all about, it was the hope the Jewish people found in the Hebrew scriptures, like we see in Isaiah 9:7
Of the greatness of his government and peace
Israel's history had included exile and oppression…and they anticipated that when the Messiah came – the King from the line of David, he would march into Jerusalem, establish a new Kingdom, regather the scattered people of Israel, drive out sin, along with the Romans, and establish peace and justice over all nations. The world would be as God intended it to be - and they anticipated this transition would come suddenly, with the arrival of the beloved Messiah. But that's not what Jesus was claiming. Instead, he was demonstrating a gentler entrance of the Kingdom. Let's take a look at Luke 17:20-21
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus,
Already among you? That threw the Pharisees (a sect of Judaism) for a loop. There wouldn’t be a sudden Kingdom takeover, but instead a slow transition, a season of overlap, where this age and the age to come, exist together. Where the brokenness and healing exist together, both in our lives, and in our world. The kingdom would not be fulfilled immediately with a powerful leader, but rather it would come silently and unseen...in fact it had already begun…ruling in the hearts of some people.
The Kingdom looked differently than many people anticipated. And I think if we're honest, this is still true for us today - and perhaps the source of much of our faith wrestling and frustration. We want to see the "sudden" - the fix, the cure, the freedom, yet sometimes we experience the brokenness, the loss, the process...and grace comes in gentler doses along the way...often overlooked, misunderstood and dismissed. Similar to Jesus...
This is the tension of living in the "already not yet" Kingdom of God, the theological concept to explain how the kingdom exists in our world (Jesus inaugurated it) but it has not yet come in fullness (when Christ returns). We are living in between the two realities--the already, not yet.
In the New Testament, we see many places in Jesus' life and ministry where he chose to demonstrate the inauguration of the Kingdom, through sudden, miraculous physical healings, which I believe wholeheartedly still happen today. Yet, Jesus never tells us this will alway be the outcome, at least not until the Kingdom comes in full. We live in the tension, the place where he invites us to partner in the ushering. "Your kingdom come, your will be done."
I'm still surprised when I go back and piece together my kidney journey timeline. This "already not yet concept" is weighty and I can't possibly do it justice in this one post, but looking back, it is what I had the opportunity to teach on during a women's event at my church on January 19th.
To pop back up to the excerpt from the book Mary read from Kingdom Come by Reggie McNeal...I might add...Kingdom efforts result in a man being able to live in freedom from dialysis, with a functioning kidney.
After the lab confirmed what I thought I knew in my spirit, I ran upstairs and told my husband. Ok, it's getting real. "So...what are you going to do?" he asked. And wasn't that the question? I hadn't really had time to process it yet.
I remember a moment, amidst ordinary chores (putting clothes away), when I fell to my knees in my bedroom closet, to inquire of the Lord. While that may seem like a strange interruption -- as the question lingered, it seemingly got heavier with every step, no matter how many loads of laundry I sorted. I needed to stop carrying the burden, the worry, the fear, and my own resistance -- something I only know how to surrender...through prayer.
"Are you really calling me to this?" I closed my eyes, let my breath slow, and waited...
I've prayed some prayers and waited for days, weeks, months, even years for an answer; in some areas I'm still waiting. But, in this case, the answer came in an instant, as snapshots of airplanes, hotels and hospitals flashed through my mind. I could see myself in Dallas. As the images played a slideshow in my thoughts, Scripture added a soundtrack in my spirit...
You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Psalm 139:13 NLT
When I stood up, I knew how I'd answer my husband. Not because I had "made a decision" during that prayer, about what I was going to do, but because I made a decision years ago to follow Christ, and I sensed where He was leading...
"We're going to Dallas."
It turns out that they don't let just anyone donate a kidney - even if you are a match. You basically need to look like you are going to live to 90 years old, with one kidney, no problem. And that should bring us comfort. I learned a lot about the organ donation process through all of this, with one of the most important things being: they really care about the donor too.
So off to Dallas I went for the preliminary evaluation February 22-23rd. I spent a couple days in the clinic getting poked, prodded, and scanned -- and in some cases re-scanned. I jokingly say that I now know where every calcium deposit is located in my body - but I actually feel like I do. If anything looks remotely suspicious or numbers aren't quite right, more testing is required. I thought I'd get the go/no-go call by the end of that week, after my coordinator presented my case and medical results to the review board. However, due to those pesky calcium deposits, which required follow-up testing when I got home, a Covid scare, and some historical medical records that took a long time to locate...I didn't actually receive the phone call until April 23rd. My phone rang and I was greeted by that sweet southern drawl I'd become accustomed to, from my transplant coordinator..."Brandy, after presenting everything to the team, we have good news, you've been approved!"
It was the call I knew would come. Then why did my stomach just drop? Even though my "yes" was secure in my spirit, I decided in advance that I wasn't going to give the clinic an answer until after the weekend. Among other things, I wanted the opportunity for Alan to hear the news in a more personal way than through the clinic. Up to that point, we had continued to keep the the process private and anonymous.
But let's get back to my stomach dropping. As quick as those "Dallas" images had flashed in prayer previously, doubt flashed now. "Is it really good news?" "Do I even want to do this?" "Am I actually going to get an organ cut from my body?" Peace had left the building and anxiety was on the rise. I found myself entertaining irrational questions and emotions.
Through the gentle and loving response of some of my dearest sister's in Christ, I learned how to be with others in the wrestling, as they were with me. Confessions not met with trite Christian responses, but rather with empathetic withness. (I thought I was making up a new word, but Mr. Webster approves) Anyway, they must have taken notes from Paul, who encourages a similar response in Romans - and I'm adding part of a commentary too, emphasis mine:
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15 ESV
As strange as it may sound, I knew there was reason to celebrate all this would mean for Alan, but I also needed some time to grieve the eventual surgery and loss of a kidney. I wasn't looking for someone to feel sorry for me, but I did need people who simply tried to understand the magnitude of what I was feeling. Thankfully, we have a Savior who can do this perfectly because he walked the earth as a human.
This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. Hebrews 4:15
Though he was God,he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. Philippians 2:6-7
Come Sunday, the phone calls were made and the news was delivered - Alan had a match and I was the donor. The cat was officially out of the bag. Having a match and a willing donor is likely the news that everyone sitting on the organ transplant waiting list longs to hear.
As celebratory as the news was, I reluctantly admit, that it put me in a tailspin. I spent much of the next week distancing myself from the celebration and pulling back into solitude with Jesus. You see, I've followed Christ on a lot of various adventures and callings through the years that required sacrifices of time, family, and finances, but never had I been asked to lay down my physical body in such a way. For as long as I can remember, I have valued and cared for my health and physical fitness. For reasons I can't explain, its never been something I took for granted. Suddenly I was wrestling all of the fears that came with putting that at risk.
I reflected on Genesis 22, when God asked Abraham to offer Isaac at the altar, to sacrifice the very son God knew Abraham loved deeply. Sometimes we read through the passage quickly, because we become too familiar with the outcome - Abraham obeys, and God provides a lamb in Isaac's place. But if we skim too quickly, I think we miss the story's weightiness, and what Abraham must have felt. I think it would have felt much like raw fear and utter trust. Not to overdramatize what I was feeling, but it many ways I felt like I was being asked to lay down my Isaac on the altar - submitting something that I highly valued all my life...my heath.
As I brought all of this to Jesus, I'm not sure I've ever experienced greater intimacy with Him. It was the first time I really considered the humanness of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, needing support from his tired, confused disciples, and asking the Father, not once, but three times to remove the suffering which was to come.
Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.” He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
I think it's Jesus's humanity, not his divinity in the garden that shows us the way to surrender. Yes Father, not my will, but your will be done. Amen.
It was during my medical evaluation in Dallas when the surgeon brought up the ethical considerations for surgery in a way that I didn't anticipate. He said that apart from the joys and emotional benefits we receive from an altruistic act, the surgery would be considered unethical for the donor. He went on to explain what he meant. Donating a kidney does not improve the health or the life of the donor in physical sense. Now, if all goes as hoped and expected, it should not decrease the donor's life and health either. However, if you only consider the surgery from the donor's perspective, it would be unethical. And that's why you must consider it simultaneously with the recipient's perspective. [As I'm writing this, I'm struck by the similarities to the cross...if you consider Jesus sacrifice from solely his perspective, it is tragically unethical, but in light of those he saved, and the benefits to humanity - we have never seen a more ethical act.]
But what does the Bible say about all of this and how should we consider the ethics of organ donation and transplantation? When I was challenged to dive into this topic a little deeper to enrich my journey, I came across this article by Bobby A. Howard (RN, BSN, MDiv) in my research. There's a lot packed in there so I'd encourage giving it a read if you're interested in considerations such as resurrection bodies, and the natural order. While I found it interesting, I didn't personally struggle to reconcile many of those particular considerations in my own journey, but that isn't to downplay their importance.
The topic that did stand out to me in the article, which did play a significant role in my journey was the command to “love your neighbor.”
In his book Christian Ethics in Health Care, John Wilkinson writes that the first ethical principle on which organ donation and transplantation may be justified is that of “love for one’s neighbor.”
I'll continue to quote this section from Howard's article here, bolding the overarching principle that influenced my conviction to donate:
Although the command to “love your neighbor” was quoted by Jesus (Matthew 5:43), Paul (Romans 13:9) and James (James 2:8), it may be traced back to Leviticus 19:18. This passage justifies its use in the ethics of organ donation and transplantation. The Hebrew word translated love in Leviticus is used in the Old Testament to describe the love one should have for a neighbor, as well as the love one should express toward God (Deut 6:5) and strangers (Deuteronomy 10:19). In examining the meaning of the Hebrew word translated love (ahab), Eugene Merrill says it refers to a covenant love connoting emotion and sensual love, and also a Spirit-led tendency toward obedience to the commands of God.
You see, one of the things that made the decision to donate difficult for me was not only the implications to my health, but also because I didn't really know Alan. I realized that the surgery felt optional to me, in a way that felt very different had the recipient been a close family member or friend. Had it been someone I had known and was endeared to, I knew I wouldn't have fallen so far into the tailspin. And it grieved my heart when I came to that reality. That's when the question was dropped in my spirit, "Who is your neighbor?" The truth of the matter was, God called me to love Alan, just as I would love my own brother and sister. Gently the Lord started helping me to align my will with His.
I finally felt myself start to get my footing after I called a friend of a friend who had donated his kidney several years ago. He had started his journey with a willingness to donate completely altruistically, to anyone who was in need for which he was a match. I was deeply moved by his story. Ultimately he did direct his donation after God crossed his path with a woman on the transplant list, and she became a treasured family friend. I was so touched by his story that as soon as I hung up the phone, I looked at Steve and I said, it's time...it's time to talk to Alan. No more distancing myself from the celebration, it was time to get to know my "neighbor." On May 5th - we called Alan.
Last year, more than 5,700 people became living organ donors. This year, on June 22nd, in all of God's graciousness, I became one of them, allowing Alan to be free from dialysis. I think about the hundreds of little details that had to come together to make this happen, going back to marrying Steve 7 years ago and of course all of life that led up to that union. And perhaps that's the way of the journeys that really matter, they start long before we are ever aware.
This is a private blog to help document my kidney donation journey and the theological, biblical, and ethical considerations for organ donation.