Leading with the Kidneys

A little card has graced my wallet for 34 years.  It’s from the National Kidney Foundation and says, “In the hope that I may help others, I hereby give any needed organs or parts, if medically acceptable, to take effect upon my death.”  It contains my signature as well as those of 2 witnesses, my mother and sister.     

I have always been a strong advocate for organ donation because my younger brother was the recipient of 2 cornea transplants at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.  The first eye was done 30 years ago at a time when transplants were rare, and organ donation received little publicity.   Randy was on a waiting list for 3 years before the first transplant took place and stayed in the hospital for 4 days (today it’s an outpatient procedure).  Then he was put on a second waiting list for the other eye, which took 4 more years.  The gift of sight that Randy received from 2 generous donors has enabled him to live a normal and full life.

Do you have a little red heart on your driver’s license or some other document that indicates your intention to be an organ donor?  Do your loved ones know your organ donation wishes?  If not, make sure that you tell them in very clear terms.  In the U.S. organ donations are done by a consent system that is regulated by the states.  However, many European countries have a presumed consent system with the opportunity to opt out; that is, you’re automatically a donor unless you choose otherwise. 

When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” he wasn’t referring to organ donation.  Yet when we offer our organs and body parts to others upon our death, it brings abundant life to others. 

Well, at least most of us will be dead.  Let me tell you about a living organ donor, who is a true hero.  Her name is Martha Beals.  Martha and I have been friends for 18 years, and, as a provisional deacon in the West Michigan Conference, we are also clergy colleagues.  A week ago today at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Martha donated one of her kidneys to a man who was eventually going to die without her gift of life.

I admit that I was leery at first.  Why would anyone want to undergo major surgery, with all its inherent risks, in order to save another person’s life?  Maybe if it was a family member or friend, but a complete stranger?

Martha first looked into kidney donation 5 years ago when she was driving by St. Mary’s Hospital on a regular basis and saw a sign for kidney transplants.  God started working on Martha, and she could not get it out of her mind, so she called the phone number.  She was met with skepticism.  “Why would you want to donate a kidney when you don’t know anyone who needs a kidney?” she was asked.  Martha received an information packet, but it didn’t go anywhere at the time.  Altruistic donors, those who are willing to donate organs without any self-interest, were suspect. 

A few years later Martha found herself on a leave of absence and rediscovered the information packet.  Making contact with the same person again, Martha discovered that things had changed at St. Mary’s.  Altruistic donors were becoming more common, partly aided by the recession, which left unemployed people with time to donate and recover from surgery. 

Martha went through an extensive battery of medical and psychological tests to ensure that she was physically able and emotionally stable enough to donate.  Kidneys are ideal for live transplants because humans have 2 of them, and we really don’t need 2 kidneys.  Because most people can function quite normally with one kidney, isn’t it natural to assume that God meant us to share them?

Did you know that the word “kidneys” (always plural) is found 30 times in the Bible?   Kidneys are mentioned 11 times in the Pentateuch as part of the sacrificial offering of animals (check out Exodus 29:13).  Isn’t it interesting that kidney donors today are also offering a sacrifice?  

Dr. Garabed Eknoyan of the Renal Section in the Department of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas , wrote a fascinating article in the December 1, 2005 Journal of the American Society for Nephrology called “The Kidneys in the Bible: What Happened?”  According to Dr. Eknoyan, kidneys (“reins” in the King James Version, from the same Latin root as “renal”) are also associated in the Bible with wisdom, emotions, and even judgment because of their mysterious placement deep within the body.  In modern versions of the Bible, these more figurative references to “kidneys” have often been translated as “mind” or “soul” and appear together with the word “heart.”  At times “kidney” is translated as “heart” itself. 

Martha’s initial hope was to start a chain of kidney transplants.  87,000 Americans are on a waiting list right now for a kidney.  Many people who need kidney transplants have family members or friends who are willing to donate their kidneys but are not a match.  The National Kidney Registry is an organization which attempts to match donors and recipients. 

If a “good Samaritan donor” (someone like Martha who is donating simply out of the goodness of their heart and is not expecting anything in return) is willing to donate their kidney to a stranger named Joe, a chain is initiated.  Joe’s loved one, who is not a match for Joe, then agrees to donate his/her kidney to someone else in the registry who is a match, say Tina.  Tina’s friend or family member then donates his/her organ to another stranger who is a match.    

Last year the largest ever chain of kidney transplants occurred when 60 surgeries took place in 17 hospitals in 11 states over a 4 month span.  The National Kidney Registry called this Chain 124.  30 donors, 29 of whom were donating on behalf of loved ones, gave the gift of life to 30 individuals who might have died without a new kidney.  It all started with one selfless person at the head of the chain who had everything to lose and nothing to gain. 

Martha’s doctors made 3 different attempts over the course of a year to start chains with her altruistic donation.  Because of her unusual blood type and distinctly shaped kidney, there were not enough potential recipients who were a match.  Finally, the coordinators of the kidney transplant program at St. Mary’s Hospital decided to focus on a single donation where Martha would give her kidney directly to someone locally.  Within a few weeks 2 potential matches were found. 

Along this journey Martha has never wavered in her belief that God was calling her to participate in this organ donation.   A week before the surgery Martha said, “I am so happy for the person who will receive my kidney.  He is receiving dialysis 3 times a week, and that must be a miserable way to live.  God has given me the ability and the time to donate, and I am so grateful that someone else can receive the gift of life.”

“Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.”
Psalm 26:2 KJV

“Prove me, O Lord, and try me, test my heart and mind.”

Both surgeries took place on March 19.  Martha and the recipient were in the holding area of St. Mary’s Hospital when Gary and I, Martha’s husband, and a friend sent her off into surgery.  The nurse said they would be in adjacent operating rooms, and the kidney would be transferred immediately from Martha to the recipient.  If the recipient wished, Martha would be able to meet him afterwards.

Surgery to remove a kidney is not a pleasant experience.  Martha spent 5 days in the hospital and will recover for up to 6 weeks.  I will never forget the look on Martha’s face last Thursday, though, after she met the recipient for the first time in his hospital room.  Martha couldn’t stop beaming as she said, “The first thing I said to him was ‘We’re family now!’  His new kidney is already functioning normally, and he’ll probably have a faster recovery than I will.  And guess what?  His son is a pre-med student at the University of Michigan just as Victor (Martha’s son) is.  Can you believe that?  

“It’s hard to put words to what I’ve just experienced.  He was so incredibly grateful.  And when I left, he said ‘I love you.’  My family and friends have been amazingly supportive.  God is good.  I have no regrets, ever.”    

“I will bless the Lord, who has given me counsel; my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.”  Psalms 16:7 KJV

“I bless the Lord, who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.” NRSV

  • Please consider donating your organs after you die.  It’s not too late to get that little red heart on your driver’s license.  At the very least, make sure that your loved ones know your intentions.
  • Even though others might think she was crazy, Martha believed that offering her kidney was a call from God.  How might God be calling you to radical sacrifice in the spirit of Jesus?
  • Martha knew that she could live with one kidney.  What might God be calling you to give away, expecting nothing in return, simply because you have more than enough?
  • The ripple effect of one act of faithfulness brought healing and hope to far more than one man and his family.  How is God asking you to “pay it forward?”

It’s an endless chain of love you started, Martha.  Leading from the heart or leading with the kidneys: in the end, they’re one in the same, aren’t they?  You’re my hero.


P.S. When I shared my blog with Martha, she responded, “I feel more convinced than ever that we are all heroes, and our life’s journey is to discover that for which God has created us: to be a hero.  That is, we humans were created to do these sorts of things for one another, and once we all figure that out, watch out (!!!) because God’s Kingdom will be pretty close at hand.  Enough said.”

4 thoughts on “Leading with the Kidneys

  1. Laurie – I know you’re term as DS is nearing it’s conclusion, but I’m hoping your blogging will continue. I greatly enjoy reading your weekly entries and I have grown because of them. My God continue to bless you!

  2. On January 16, 2006 I also donated a kidney. Unfortunately, our good friend and recipient died last July, but not because “lefty” wasn’t functioning, but just couldn’t keep up as Keith had many other health issues. It is an experience unlike no other. My road to healing took many months. His was longer. Many people don’t understand why a person would do this and question your reasons–no one can truly understand the “gift of life” feeling that comes with donation. Yes, you are definitely now a part of another family. People ask “since he died anyway, would you do it again?” Most definitely—YES! My prayers are with you for your speedy recovery. The sacrifice we make is nothing compared to the life that is saved and enriched.

    • Thanks so much for your response, Janet. What an act of courage on your part to donate. Even though your recipient died, he lived for 5 years after the donation, which he likely would not have otherwise. I’ll make sure that Martha reads your response God bless you.

      • Dear Janet, I realize nothing is certain in kidney donations, on either end. Meeting my recipient left me beyond words; something I know you understand. I will never regret donating, ever; even if things don’t turn out the way I hope, on either end. There is a Jewish proverb that simply states that if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world. Even in sadness, that is something to feel really good about. Thank you.

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