I met Mary Harms in 1987 at a Bible study when we both attended Faith Covenant Church in Burnsville, Minnesota. In the years since, we’ve done many things together, smacked a golf ball around a course or two, gone horseback riding, gone for bike rides, taken vacations together, and always, have shared a good laugh while doing so. As far as friends go, one could not find a truer friend with whom to share life’s joys and sorrows.
She and I along with our husbands are on vacation together in the Keys. Mile Marker 50, to be exact. Today we had this conversation about the anxiety that comes upon me prior to traveling. I am a “kitchen sink” packer. I like being ever-ready; from jewelry to packing spices, I tend to be that go-to person should you be in need of something while on vacation. For chances are, I’ve packed it for just such an occasion.
I guess I’ve always been that way. I remember as a fifth grader being asked to come play school after school at a neighbor’s house. I was so excited. I ran to my room and started ruminating through my desk, thinking and packing all the things I thought my friend and I would need to play school. When I finally arrived at my friend’s house to play, her mom met me at the door. “Oh, Julie, Sue can’t play now. It’s too late. It’s time for supper.”
So this morning while Mary was doing Prancercise in the pool of our VRBO rental (I say this with a big dose of laughter and a wink to Mary, who just told me about this video), I told Mary about my pre-trip anxiety. “What would happen,” she said, “if you forgot something or didn’t pack it?”
Excuses raced out. That word, “control,” surfaced. But another word did too. Play. Maybe I’m a human form of a Pack ‘n Play. I like to have all my toys with me wherever I go.
This week I’m reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Jill Mansell, a popular British writer. Audible.com featured a conversation they had with her about how she writes. Eye-opening. Here’s her list of things she brings with her when she sits down to write her next book:
- Fountain pen.
- Yellow pages.
That’s it. Wherever she goes. I wonder if I could do something like that. Scary. Risky. Freeing?
“Control what you can control,” is a phrase Mary has used many a time to gently remind me that I am in charge of me and I can let others run their lives. She is a living example of that phrase. A couple of years ago, Mary gave up control forever. Of one kidney. To an unknown someone who, she would learn later, had a wife and two children.
Mary’s journey to live minus one kidney began with her brother-in-law, Gary, who lives in Massachusetts. This month, February 2016, marks the third anniversary that, because of Mary’s surgery, Gary received a much-needed kidney transplant. I find it fitting and appropriate that she share on this anniversary how she chose to become a kidney donor.
I was blessed to witness Mary’s selfless decision to give up her kidney to make a difference in someone’s life. Here’s her story. Enjoy!
Waiting: My Journey to Kidney Donation
By Mary Harms
As early as I can remember the tradition of attending church on Sundays was a part of my life. As I became an adult, I no longer kept this a priority. After being absent from the church for several years, God drew me back to Himself, as I desired to find a church home. This time, my participation was not to keep my parents happy but to build a relationship with God. A pivotal time in my spiritual growth was when I realized that my thoughts, actions, and decisions were totally selfish. I never invited God into my plans or asked Him for guidance in my daily life. Self vs. obedience to God. This choice continues to challenge me as a follower of Jesus.
In my forties, God placed a call on my heart and I was faced with the choice to be obedient once again. I am honored to be sharing my journey with you.
It started in 2006 when my sister, Janet, shared with our family that her husband, Gary, would be needing a second kidney transplant. Gary’s original transplanted kidney had served him well for the past twenty years, but it was starting to show signs of decreased function. Though the situation was not urgent, the goal was to find a donor and transplant for Gary again, preempting the need for dialysis.
I began praying for Gary’s health and that God would provide a donor for him. During one of the prayer times, I felt an unmistakable nudge by God. My heart started racing as I was filled with a range of emotions, but the message that I understood was clear.
I was to offer to be the donor that Gary needed.
I contacted the Donor Coordinator at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Boston, as Janet and Gary live in Massachusetts, and his doctors work at Brigham. I was given some preliminary information on kidney donation, did some reading and research online, but life was full with work and having two daughters in high school. Months slipped by as Gary’s kidney function was being monitored by his doctors and he remained relatively stable.
Two years later, in the summer of 2008, I was contacted by my other sister, Donna, who lived in Minnesota and was traveling to Boston to undergo testing to donate her kidney to Gary. She asked if I would be willing to help her during her recovery from surgery if she was accepted as a donor. I immediately started feeling guilty since I had dropped the ball in my own process of testing for donation. When I learned that Donna was not accepted as a donor, I was not surprised. It was time for me to actively recommit myself to what God had called me to do.
I started by sitting down with my family and having an honest discussion. Each person was in support of my following this call. I started to share this information with others, asking them to pray that I would have wisdom and peace as I navigated the next step. One member of our church had just donated a kidney to her nephew. God was so good to provide me with someone who had already taken this journey.
Gary’s kidney function remained stable as another two years passed. In September 2010, I was accepted as a kidney donor. Since Gary and I have different blood types, we would need to enter a kidney swap program. I contacted my coordinator since I had now been approved for donation. Gary’s doctors, meanwhile, continued to monitor his kidney function. I was asked to just wait.
In the next two weeks I came in contact with three people who each lived with a single kidney. I thanked God for the reminder that He indeed created the human body with two kidneys, and yet, we can fully function with one. I believe this was God’s way of reminding me that He was in control and that I would be just fine. When anxiety would surface, it gave me a sense of peace remembering how God specifically spoke to me through these three individuals.
Sixteen months later, in January 2012, I was contacted by my coordinator. Gary’s kidney function had reached a critical point. A transplant needed to occur – and soon.
My initial response to this news was one of frustration and anger. Life had changed for me. One of my daughters had graduated from college and moved to Australia to pursue a graduate program; the other was attending a local college. Both were engaged and our youngest was planning a July 2012 wedding. There was no way I would be able to undergo major surgery for the next six months. I found myself thinking, Why couldn’t I have donated when I was first accepted and “banked” a kidney for Gary? My coordinator assured me that this sort of thing happened all the time and advised me to get through the wedding and let her know when I was ready.
In September, one month after my daughter’s wedding, my brother-in-law, Gary, and I officially entered the New England Paired Kidney Exchange. The average wait is five months. In our case, that meant awaiting a kidney to be found for Gary and a recipient to be found for my kidney. We would be given a two- to three-week notice of our surgery date.
It was an exciting time to be moving toward this long-awaited goal, but I continued to battle fear and anxiety. Would something happen during surgery that would complicate my recovery? Would my remaining kidney function for me as long as I needed it?
During a time of worship at my church, we were singing Blessed Be Your Name. The words, You give and take away were being lifted up and a fresh revelation came to me. Prior to this time whenever I had sung those words I acknowledged that God was the giver of life, but He was teaching me so much more during this time and that was:
He would give me peace and take away my anxiety.
He would give me courage and take away my fear.
My part was to hand over what I was struggling with. He would not just remove it. I had to relinquish it. I learned that each time anxiety, fear, or uncertainty entered my spirit, if I would give it to God, He would fill me with peace, truth, and more of Himself. This was a precious time of intimacy with God. He had gifted me this life and was now asking me to trust Him as I surrendered control. Would I be willing to make this sacrifice for my brother-in-law?
Six months of waiting later, on February 25, 2013, I received a call from my coordinator and my heart stopped as I answered the phone. Do I have a minute to talk? She explained that since there was a current transplant chain in progress at the hospital, there was an available kidney matching Gary’s blood type, even though my the intended recipient could not have surgery at that time. Gary was to be at the hospital the following morning to undergo compatibility testing with the kidney. If everything matched up he would have surgery the following day. In less than forty-eight hours, Gary could be on the other side of his second transplant. They needed my commitment that I would still be willing to donate after Gary received his kidney. All I would need to do was…wait. I was excited for Gary. My heart was filled with joy as we learned that he was a match. He received his new kidney on February 27, 2013, the day after my 51st birthday.
In March, I returned to Brigham. It had been over two years from my original testing. Donors are required to retest after 24 months to remain viable donors. My retesting and visit gave me a chance to spend time with Janet and Gary. He was doing well. My second testing required a follow-up on my blood pressure as high blood pressure would rule me out as a donor. My diagnosis was white coat hypertension, which meant that when I was in a medical setting my blood pressure measured higher due to anxiety. I was still an acceptable donor.
Looking back, I find it interesting that some dates are etched in my memory and others are not. I don’t remember the day or time, but I finally received the call that I had been waiting for: a recipient had been found. Surgery was set for April 11, 2013. My husband Greg and I reserved our flights and packed our bags. I arrived in Boston and got settled at my sister’s. It was good to see Gary again. I was reminded of his journey, of being a transplant recipient for the last 27 years, and it gave me strength and peace to face my surgery knowing what he had survived. My part seemed so small; Gary was my champion.
My last trip to the bathroom before I crawled into bed, I experienced painful urination and a pinkish tinge was on the toilet paper. I knew immediately these were signs of a urinary tract infection. I fell face down on the floor of my bedroom, and asked God to come into the situation. I reminded Him that He could heal this infection if it is His will to do so. I cried. No, I sobbed. I didn’t understand, I had come so far in this journey.
My condition did not change in the morning. The surgery was immediately cancelled. Antibiotics were prescribed and more testing was scheduled the following week. All I could think about was the devastation the recipient must have been feeling to receive news of the cancelled surgery. I was emotionally frazzled.
My sister comforted me with the fact that the transplant team would not put donors or recipients at risk. I agreed to stay in Massachusetts until the following week. I questioned God’s timing and acknowledged that perhaps I had yet another lesson to learn. I reminded myself that my promise to God was to be obedient to His call and take one step at a time. I was not responsible for the outcome.
During the week of waiting on April 15, 2013, my sister and I were on our way to her home from visiting one of her friends. I answered my phone. It was my son-in-law calling from Minnesota. Had we heard the news? Two bombs had exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. He wanted to know where we were and if we were safe. The week that followed was an emotional time as we were glued to the TV images of victims, first responders and eventually the perpetrators of that unbelievable crime. My sister shared that she believed the reason I did not have surgery on the scheduled date was because of the bombing, as we would have been in Boston at one of the hospitals that many of the victims were taken to. It would have been a logistical nightmare.
On April 18, I was back at the hospital for a follow-up visit regarding my infection. I had waited years, months, and weeks, during this process. I was now waiting to be taken for the last test and they were running behind schedule. Three hours went by before a nurse finally took me in for the procedure. She asked about the testing I was having done. I told her about Gary’s surgery in February and that it was now my turn to donate. She worked on the transplant team and remembered Gary. He was the longest transplant recipient that she had personally worked with. She asked me what brought me to my decision.
“God has touched my heart, and I can’t say no to the Big Guy,” was my response. I will never forget her words to me.
“Those of you who donate are the real heroes, and Mary, many are touched by God, but not all follow through.”
I spent that evening and the next day with a friend of mine who lives in the Boston area. It was a time of relaxation and reconnecting. She reminded me that she was diagnosed with kidney cancer twenty-one years ago and had to have one of her kidneys removed. God sent yet another individual to speak truth and love into my life during this time of waiting that of Life can be lived with one kidney, Mary, in case you have forgotten.
My surgery date was rescheduled for April 25. Janet, Gary, my husband, Greg, and I spent the night before my surgery in Boston so we would be close to the hospital in the morning. We were finishing dinner at the hotel restaurant, as our waitress brought the check.
“What brings you to the city?” she asked.
Greg pointed to me and said, “This lady is going to donate one of her kidneys in the morning.”
I was a little embarrassed that he had shared this information with a complete stranger.
“Oh,” she replied, “My father donated a kidney to my uncle a few years back. Good luck with everything.”
That “random” waitress, who “just happened” to be our waitress on the night before my surgery?
God, I think, You truly are amazing and have been so faithful to me. Thanks again for reassuring me that I would be ok.
I slept well, woke up refreshed and ready to go. As we drove to the hospital, I wondered when I would start to get nervous. I had an overwhelming sense of peace, not only as we made our way to the hospital, but during the pre-op as well. My blood pressure was taken as part of the procedure and it was normal.
I looked directly at my sister and said, “Interesting that someone with white coat hypertension has normal blood pressure waiting to go into surgery.”
God had blanketed me in a peace that surpassed my human understanding. As we waited for my turn to be taken to surgery, I saw a patient being wheeled by who was missing part of his leg – he was a victim of the Marathon Bombing. Life is fragile and circumstances can change in a moment, I thought. We have control over so little. I prayed, Lord, I have trusted You all the way, be with me now as I see this through to the end.
The transplant surgery was successful. I learned that my recipient was a man from Ohio with a wife and two young boys. I was given his contact information and decided to call him. When he asked me why I decided to donate, I shared a little of my spiritual journey and told him that my kidney donation was God’s gift of love to him through me.
I was excited to share my conversation with Gary about my recipient. Gary reminded me that he lost his own father when he was twelve years old due to the same kidney disease that Gary had survived.
“Mary,” he said to me, “You have not only given this man life. You have given those boys their dad.”
So what did I learn over the seven years of my journey to donating my kidney, from prompting to the completion?
God is faithful. I can trust Him.
God uses His Holy Word, worship, and His creation, to speak to us. He brings me His blessings.
God’s ways are higher than our ways. He accomplished so much more than I ever imagined.
There is spiritual growth in obedience. I am a different person, a better person, than I was when I began this journey.
To God be the Glory.