Giving of Self

Several months ago, my spiritual path led me to an operating table where I donated a kidney to a recipient who was unknown to me. To get there, I had to learn a number of spiritual truths, and I came to understand the Quaker principle of hearing God’s call, and then responding.

About 12 years ago, I had an epiphany experience at a time of emotional and spiritual crises. During a meeting for worship, in response to my demand for understanding, I was lifted to heaven and was fully in the presence of God. By the clock, the duration of the experience was only minutes; but it continues to reverberate in my soul. I continue to have visions, when they serve God’s purpose, and occasionally I hear the voice of God. For a while I thought I was going crazy, and was certain that others would think so. How strange that this same process would lead to an organ donation, where part of the evaluation process certified me as mentally healthy.

Just over a year ago, two people came to Mayo Clinic to donate kidneys. Since several attenders of my meeting had connections with them, we had a meeting for healing with them two days after their donations. I asked whether they wanted to pray with me afterwards, and the woman who had donated did so, her hands resting on mine. With my spiritual eyes, I saw her with wings as an angel. I was awed and shared this vision with her, and I pondered it for days. While in prayer, I saw Friends in my meeting, and each of them had wings. Looking further, I saw that all people have wings. We are all earthly angels. Our highest calling is to be agents of God’s mercy.

As Quakers, we understand that our task is to figure out what God wants us to do, and then proceed. Some would protest that they are not worthy, or able, to carry out some big undertaking. But mercy can be as small as smiling at a stranger, acknowledging store clerks by looking them in the eye, or remembering someone’s name. God has work for all of us.

I prayed for clearness about whether I should donate a kidney. The message I got back was yes. Nationally, 60,000 people are waiting for kidneys. Thousands more wait on lists for liver, pancreas, heart, and lung transplants. In 2003, almost 6,000 people on the waiting lists died. Kidney donations do not shorten the donor’s life expectancy; and kidney transplant success rates at Mayo Clinic are as high as 98 percent, with kidney transplants lasting 15-20 years on average.

I contacted the clinic and found my way to the transplant center. A transplant coordinator interviewed me. She outlined the process, emphasized risks, and clarified that I would not meet—and would be told little about—the recipient. Some months later, if both parties agreed, we could meet. I would not be compensated in any way. I later learned that there is an underground market where people buy and sell kidneys. This is illegal, and medical facilities work to screen out these interactions.

When the coordinator was satisfied that my motives were appropriate, I was scheduled for several days of evaluations—blood pressure, cardiac function, kidney function, mental health, and an MRI to make sure that I had two kidneys. I came to see that the transplant teams comprised two cooperating groups. One was working with people experiencing organ failure, keeping them healthy and supporting them after they received an organ. I was working with the other group, which concentrated on making sure that the donor’s health was being cared for. I absolutely had the feeling that the staff were caring for me.

I work for a public school system, and so the surgery would have to take place in the summer. Donors are typically off work for three to six weeks. We ran out of time during the summer of 2003, and we put the process on hold.

During the winter, I again questioned what I was doing. I reflected on the large number of people who donate blood. A smaller number are on bone marrow lists, despite the difficulty in meeting needs due to the exact matches required. Many people are willing to donate organs to a relative, but very few have donated organs anonymously—only about 300 kidneys nationally. I reexamined the truth I had learned, that we are all one. In prayer I had been shown that we all exist before we are born, living together in God’s heart. Unlike our earthly existence where we are largely blind and uncomprehending, in heaven we see and understand. What affects one soul affects all others. Thus, there is no separation between "us" and "them," or between "you" and "me." We are all one. I am not only my brother’s keeper, I am my brother and sister. When a child dies from lack of food, part of me dies.

I was told that there was a list at Mayo Clinic of people waiting for kidneys who could not accept a cadaver kidney because of their medical conditions. They had to receive a kidney from a live donor. If a donor wasn’t available, they were out of luck. I was drawn to that list. Some other "me" was waiting.

On the day of my surgery, I had hoped that I could be in some deeply centered state. I walked the eight blocks from my house to the hospital, and was disappointed to discover that I was simply "me." I was continually distracted by bird songs and architectural details, cracks in the sidewalk, and anything else that appeared. I didn’t feel particularly spiritual or centered. I came to understand, however, that this was enough. What was required of me was to hear God’s call, and to show up. Simply being there, prepared to do my best, was enough. I was comforted.

Just before they put me under, I thanked the surgical team. I told them that I was trying to do something spiritual, and that they were helping me carry it out. They had been chattering, but became very quiet. Three hours later I opened my eyes to see my recovery nurse standing over me and smiling. She is a dear friend from my meeting, and it felt very tender to be in her care.

I was euphoric enough on the first day to carry myself through. I needed very little pain medication, and was able to lie back and be largely helpless and hurting. The second day, I wasn’t afraid of my pain or trying to fight against it, but was fatigued. Throughout my hospital stay, I was surprised by how personal my care was. All the nurses connected with me as a person, with their eyes and attention. Even the doctors did this. I expected high-quality care; I didn’t anticipate their readiness to form human, caring bonds with their patients.

I left the hospital on the third day with a catheter in place—which sometimes is required, especially with older men. It wasn’t part of my expectation. Over the next two days I reflected that I had entered this with faith that God would care for me—but that didn’t mean that things would come out the way I wanted them. My assurance was in God’s presence and love, and that all things would eventually be for good. I’m rid of the catheter now, and have recovered. I haven’t taken any pain medication since the first four days, and have been able to spend time at my woodcarving bench.

The recipient is doing well, and my kidney is functioning for him. I am writing this before we meet. He is interested in getting together, and I look forward to developing some type of relationship with him.

Outcomes, however, weren’t the focus of my actions. I had no control over how either surgery or recovery would turn out. I had to have enough faith to put those entirely in God’s hands. I had to stay focused on how I was led, and following that leading.

I haven’t learned anything earth-shattering during the last months, nor have I been given any great spiritual gift—except the simple joy that comes with saying, "Here I am, God, take me."