A Message from a Living Kidney Donor

A few months ago in the post, A Somewhat Oddly Timed Thanksgiving, I mentioned Gerald Neufeld, who donated a kidney on my behalf as part of the Paired Kidney Donation (a.k.a. Living Donor Paired Exchange) program. I had mentioned in that post that Gerald had been a missionary in Japan. These days Gerald continues to be involved in church ministries in two part-time roles, one as pastor of a small Japanese congregation in Surrey, BC, and the other as the music coordinator for Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford, BC. On February 12, he shared the following message at Emmanuel:

Faith, Christian Community, and Kidney Donation

Galatians 6:1-10

I’d like to tell you a bit about my experience in donating a kidney a number of months ago. Most of this message will be about my experience. Many people think that it must have been a huge decision for me, but I really felt like it was just a number of small steps of faith. God has blessed me with great health, a supportive family, and a wonderful church community. In deciding to take steps to donate a kidney I felt like I was just responding to God for all the blessings I’ve received…

If you read the article I wrote in the Emmanuel newsletter you would have seen how I decided to donate. Rather than it being one huge step of faith, it really felt like a lot of little things, pieces of a puzzle that came together. As I reflect on this, I realize how much community has been woven through the whole process.

In Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia he tells them to “Bear one another’s burdens…” Here, he’s likely talking about helping people who are of bearing the burden that results from sin and the consequences of sin, but the burdens that we can help each other with could be anything that takes away from the joy in living our faith – sickness, difficulty finding work, struggles in relationships, uncertainty about the future… I’m not going to get into a lot more detail here but I thought this passage fits well with the role of the faith community in everyday life. A big part of bearing one another’s burdens involves prayer, and as I look back on my experience it’s interesting how the prayers and support of our faith community played such a major role.

At a Vancouver pastor’s meeting, when I first heard a prayer request for a man who was dying because his kidneys were failing, I began to not only pray for him, but I also thought, “Would it work for me to actually donate a kidney?” I began praying to see if God may be leading me this way. Didn’t John the Baptist say “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none”? I figured I have two healthy kidneys, I guess maybe I could share with someone who has none (at least none that are functioning well)! I remember my wife Rie’s initial reaction. “I hope it doesn’t work out for you to do it!” She was quite worried! But then, she also began to pray about it and soon she was strongly supporting me, I think because she sensed that maybe God was leading me in this direction. I did lots of research, and found out that most people who donate a kidney have no problems afterward and can live a normal life. You don’t need any special medication or anything, and the only restriction I have now is that they advise against skydiving. (I’ve never figured out why)…

I read in the Canadian Mennonite magazine about another pastor who donated a kidney, and had no problems, so I decided to take another step and begin the donation process. I had to go through many tests in order to make sure I was healthy enough to donate. If any tests showed a danger of health problems in the future, I would not have been allowed to continue the process. It was at this point that I heard the one to whom I’d possibly donate a kidney, was from the same family that had given me a guitar several months earlier! When my 12-string guitar had been stolen I had put out a prayer request during one of the pastor’s meetings, hoping someone may know about a good deal on buying another guitar, and one pastor suggested he could check with a church member who has a 12-string guitar that was hardly ever used. Right away, I heard that I could have it. Now, this was the same family praying for a kidney! I had already pretty much decided to start the process to donate, but this helped confirm my decision. If they gave me a guitar, I guess I could give them a kidney! Since I wasn’t compatible with the person who needed the kidney, I joined a special program where other incompatible donors and recipients are matched. So, between 2, 3, or 4 incompatible pairs people could be matched so that each person can indirectly donate or receive. It usually takes several months, but before we were matched, the other person actually received a kidney from a deceased donor. I then wondered if God was saying, OK, you don’t have to donate anymore. But by that time, I had heard about a different friend who needed a kidney, so I decided to stay on the list in order to donate for him. Why not? I was all ready to donate! Russ Sawatsky is a friend I’d met in Japan. We’d both been mission workers there, and had met several times. Now, Russ is living with his family in Ontario… After much waiting, we were finally matched and we each had surgery.

To have surgery, I wasn’t too scared because I felt that God had led me to this decision. Of course there was a potential that there may be some complication, but I felt that even if I ended up with some major problem, God would continue to lead me through. I sensed your prayers as well as the prayers of many others in my wider community of family and friends.

Through this whole process, I didn’t let myself think too much about possible things that could go wrong (‘cause I didn’t want to chicken out!) (even though the chances of anything terrible happening were quite slim). I expected everything to go smoothly, but there were a few unexpected things that happened, reminding me that this was a complex process. I guess one thing is that the whole process took longer than I expected. When I first called the number of the “Pre-Assessment Transplant Clinic,” I gave them my email address, and they then sent me all the information I needed to get started in the process. I was thinking in my head that once I called that number, I was committing myself to donate, and would probably have surgery within a few weeks. It could have happened in a couple of months, but in the end, it was over a year later that everything finally worked out. During the process there were many opportunities for me to decide to opt out if I wanted. The staff were very careful to make sure I didn’t feel obligated to continue if I suddenly felt uncomfortable about the whole thing.

After the surgery, I was a bit surprised that it was somewhat more challenging than I had expected. There was no time when I felt all that much pain. At home, though, I took the maximum recommended dosage of painkillers because I wanted to be able to sleep, but it had the opposite effect. My mind went into a panic and I was not able to sleep for over 30 hours! It was a strange feeling, and at times I thought I might die. I prayed quite a bit during that time, committing to God, but physically my mind could not stop racing. After that I didn’t take any more painkillers and I actually don’t think I needed them. I’m glad that the weird effects only lasted about a day, and I’m thankful for all your prayers during my recovery. It was quite meaningful for me to know that I am a part of a larger faith community. It wasn’t just my own prayers that gave me strength, as I’ve mentioned before. You have been participating as well.

In the scripture passage read today, Paul not only encourages the people to bear one another’s burdens, he also says that everyone must carry their own loads. This might seem to be contradictory, but the meaning is different. We are to support and encourage each other along the way, but everyone must also take responsibility for their own actions. Someday, we’ll each have to give an account of how well we lived with what God has given us. The good news is that we are already children of God, part of God’s Kingdom through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us on the cross.

Today’s passage from Galatians ends with the encouragement to do what is right, not giving up, and whenever we have the opportunity, to “work for the good of all, especially those of the family of faith.” We all have chances to take a step of faith in some area. It doesn’t have to be organ donation. Maybe God is calling you to commit to give a greater percentage of your money to help others. Or maybe you are being called to give of your time, or something else in a different area. It may be a bit scary, but if you take just a small step of faith, you will see what God can do! And the one step may lead to another and another! I actually did a lot of calculating before deciding to donate a kidney, but I’m trying to trust more and more in God’s leading so that I can take more steps in the direction I feel God leading, even if I haven’t calculated and weighed all the possibilities. Sometimes I end up waiting too long before taking a step of faith, but with the support and encouragement of believers around me I’m learning to trust our Lord, more and more. Our steps of faith may be wobbly like a baby learning to walk. We’ll sometimes fall, but like a loving parent, I believe God is pleased to see us keep trying.

The great thing is that we are not alone in taking our steps. We are part of a faith community. How do we bear one another’s burdens? Here in Canada, we value independence. We teach kids to stand on their own, and take their own responsibility. We make sure we are doing the right thing, and it doesn’t matter so much how others are doing. But, when I lived in Japan I saw a different culture where the emphasis was much more on the community. The needs of the group take priority over individual needs. In Japan people are taught to think about the needs of others before their own. I sometimes notice this cultural difference between my wife and me. She’s criticised my driving because I’ve often failed to let others into my lane. My driving style is to mainly make sure I am following the rules, and others can do what they want, but in Japan people are taught to consider others, even when driving. I think we can learn something from them in this area.

It’s so easy to go through life with blinders on (like a horse). Sometimes horses have blinders on each side of their head so they don’t get distracted and can focus straight ahead. Instead, I’m trying to take more notice of what’s happening around me. It’s not good to just focus on my own situation all the time. Is there some area where you’ve noticed a need? Maybe it’s time to step into the situation in order to offer help in bearing another’s burden, so to speak.

All through the process of my experience, I’ve sensed the work of the wider faith community — after losing my guitar, in my request for prayer at the pastor’s meeting, the request for prayer when someone needed a kidney, the prayers and support from you as well as family and friends in other places, as I underwent surgery, the prayers and support as I took time off work. Community played a role as I learned through the Canadian Mennonite magazine about the other pastor who donated a kidney. And, my connection with Russ Sawatsky through mission work and the wider Mennonite community was another area where community played a role. It’s good to hear that Russ is now doing well, and also the person who directly received my kidney here in BC. I also feel pretty much back to normal.

So, what about each of us, in our lives? Where might God be leading us to take a small step of faith? Jesus said we only need faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. The reason is, God recognizes our little attempts to be faithful, and brings us the rest of the way. Each of us are called to really just take a small step. It usually involves some risk. Maybe God is calling you to take a step. Many people have already signed a donor card. It can easily be done online, and even kids can sign up. A link is provided in the bulletin, but you can also just do a search for “BC Transplant.” Someone who has registered a decision to donate any organs needed, after death, could potentially save the lives of eight different people. Or, some of us may feel a calling to sometime become a live donor. Recently, I was amazed to hear that if you donate a part of your liver, it grows back! If I’d known that, maybe I should have done a liver donation rather than kidney! No… I have no regrets. Maybe someday I’ll consider the liver. But, one thing is becoming more and more clear to me. I think I may never have experienced donating a kidney if it hadn’t been for the supportive community and the encouragement I experienced in the small steps along the way.

Let’s pray.

Almighty God, you have blessed us with so much! Thank-you for all you’ve given us. Thank-you that through your Son, Jesus we have perfect peace and joy. Thank-you for the gift of your church. Each day, you lead us, O Lord. Thank-you that no matter what happens around us we need not fear, because you walk with us. Help us to trust that you always provide us with everything we need to do your will. Increase our generosity, that we may rely more and more on you and less and less on ourselves. Grant us the courage to step out in faith. Help us to notice those areas where you call us to step in and help bear another’s burden. May we recognise the opportunities you give us to take those small steps of faith, through the power of Christ at work within us, Amen.

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