Faith in Kidneys
Disclaimer: All names and identifying information have been modified to protect the privacy of all individuals. The opinions expressed in these articles are the author's own and do not reflect the views of the University of Virginia.
Our world is not solely composed of “most-likely” situations. In the strange, curious, and at times inexplicable reality in which we live, the seemingly-impossible is sometimes synonymous with the achievable. Such was the case for Carter and his wife, Sarah.
What are the odds that either your parent, spouse, or child can be a fully compatible kidney donor to you? How about all three? It doesn’t take a quick Google search to realize that the chances of those three events happening together are not in your favor. However, that is exactly what happened to Sarah, whose battle with Henoch-Schönlein purpura (HSP) damaged her kidneys at the early age of ten years old. Usually, HSP, an autoimmune disease, is not serious in children and typically goes away over time. Again, typicality is never a guarantee.
Sarah received her first gift of life when she was thirteen, in the form of a kidney from her father. They had waited three years to operate because back then because doctors thought she needed to grow more in order to be closer to her father’s size; it was thought that this would increase the chances of surgical success. Because the first living organ donor kidney transplant occurred in 1960, the procedure during Sarah’s first transplant was drastically different from the one to which we are accustomed today. Fortunately, everything went well and Sarah was able to survive on her new kidney for twenty years.
Everything seemed fine until she became pregnant with her first child. Sarah’s HSP, the extra strain of pregnancy, and simultaneous battles with toxemia and diabetes led to the failure of the kidney that had helped her continue to live. It was time for Carter, the husband, to step in.
Twenty-one years ago, Carter donated one of his kidneys to his wife, with no hesitation in his mind. For him, the decision was automatic: “With my wife, there was absolutely no question about donating.” This second transplant went well, allowing Sarah to live for another twenty years. That should have been the end of the story, but then Sarah had a third kidney failure. While there were fifteen potential donors for another surgery, one stood out among the crowd: their son, also named Carter. He was just a child during his father’s transplant, too young to understand the situation in front of him. But now, Carter, a fully grown man, knew that as a blood relative he would be his mother’s best bet at life. It was his turn now.
This is an incredible story of a woman beating the odds, refusing to give up on life, and the three men who helped her along the way. They were willing and able to give her a piece of themselves to give her the gift of life. But the story doesn’t end there.
During his wife’s third surgery, Carter came across another opportunity to give, one that would take him into unchartered waters. Carter recounted the story in an interview with me: “I put up something on Facebook about it to my friends, and that on this certain day, I was going to be at a restaurant if anyone wanted to join me. 60 people showed up. One of them was a high school classmate, Kelly. Between 9th and 10th grade she got thrown off her horse and the injuries were so bad that she had to be homeschooled for the next 3 years. The pain medications that she was given ended up destroying her liver, and now she is in need of a liver transplant. I told her that if all tests worked out, I would give her part of my liver.”
As simply as Carter tried to portray the story, I knew that there was more to it than that. So I dug deeper, picking his brain on why he was willing to risk his health to help someone he barely knew.
Carter admitted that things were different this time around, especially now that the donor wasn’t his wife. “I know her name but I don’t really know her.” But Carter, now fifty-six years old, saw this as something that he was meant to do. “Something that was very important to me was that my son was raised. If my son was young, I wouldn’t be doing this. With any risk of something going wrong, I need to first and foremost be there for a child who is growing up. If something goes wrong, which is highly unlikely, then he’s an adult now. He’s twenty-seven. He’ll be okay.” Okay, that made sense. But was that the only thought that went through his head before making his decision? I wanted to know more. There had to be more.
What is the difference between donating a kidney to a loved one and donating your liver to an almost-stranger? Through Carter, I discovered that the lack of familiarity, trust, and relationship between recipient and donor is made up for by one single word: faith. Carter not only believes, he knows that he is doing a good thing, and that realization is what helped him make the decision. “Jesus Christ, He gave everything for us, He died for us, suffering a terrible death. As a Christian, that’s what we should do: serve others. The bigger and the better that we can serve other people, the more we should. To me, that’s why I do it- When we preach Christianity, it should not be through talk, it should be through actions.”
Those were some bold words words that were definitely easier said than done. Listening to Carter as he sat across from me, I was afraid that I just wasn’t understanding. “So, let me get this straight. You were just in a restaurant, listening to her story, and somehow, God just told you that you should do this?” I asked him. His simple smile said it all: “I believe that at the end of the day, it’s all up to God’s plan. Sometimes our plan doesn’t line up with his, but with a little faith, you can make your plan, His plan.” A little bit of faith can go a long way. As a man of faith, Carter wanted to follow up his words with his actions, a principle that is reflected in the Bible: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24).
Some say that theology and faith have no place in an ever scientifically-driven world. This story says otherwise.
Technically, the Bible does not explicitly state that part of being a good Christian means choosing to be an organ donor. However, the foundation of the religion itself is based upon the ideal of unconditional love. They believe that God showers love upon them and that it is their responsibility to spread that love across the world, regardless of race, religion, or gender. Christianity revolves around service to others: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” (Proverbs: 3:27). The act of carrying out this belief can be seen in various ways, including organ donation. Carter saw an opportunity to act on his faith and realized that it was indeed within his power to give part of his liver to a stranger.
But stories like that of Carter are not limited to just those who are religious. While ethics and theology have much in common, they are not the same. Carter’s decision to donate was an ethical decision that was backed by faith. But faith is not the only catalyst that can lead people to donate. Christians such as Carter are not the only ones who can become altruistic organ donors. Put religion aside for a moment and think of something that all humans have inside: goodwill. Whether that be holding the door open for the person behind you, smiling at the barista at Starbucks, or offering part of your liver to a stranger, we all have the potential to do good. Becoming a living organ donor is possible for anyone, not just someone of faith.
Moreover, it is also within our power to become registered as deceased organ donors. What does that entail? Being registered means that upon death, a team of doctors can remove your organs and immediately use them to save the lives of people who are in critical condition. These organs are extremely precious and fragile, as there is a time limit for transplantation before oxygen deprivation renders them useless. In a broad sense, being an organ donor gives you the chance to continue to do good even after death.
Any topic of discussion concerning death is bound to be complicated. People deserve to know all of the information about both living and deceased organ donations. Some religions and cultures prefer not to touch the body once someone has died, while others find it quite acceptable, and even encourage it. Pope Francis has even described the act of organ donation as a “testimony of love for our neighbor.” Almost all religions respect the idea of the individual’s choice to donate or not. At the end of the day, this is a matter of agency, and what factors will influence your decision. However, despite these potential bioethical tensions, the simple fact remains that becoming an organ donor will undoubtedly serve to help someone in need.
We have a drought of organ donors in America. At the same time, the need for organ donations continue to rise. According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are over 120,000 people who are waiting list candidates for organ donations. It’s easy to blame the government, to point fingers at a “broken system” that the government has failed to fix. It is much harder to realize that we as a society share the blame, too. It takes people to make the decision to be organ donors, people who choose to make act on their goodwill.
Of course, the problem of the shortage of organs will not solved by the simple idea of good will alone. It will take educating the public, learning what being an organ donor means. It will require a government effort to properly regulate the distribution of organs to those who need it across the country. But most importantly, the solution lies in more individuals like Carter, who will act out of faith or goodwill, making a positive difference in the lives of others.