Photo from Parick Sullivan, O.F.M.CAP.
carrying around a somewhat ragged card since 1970 that was
signed by me and two witnesses. This card gives permission to transplant
any needed organs in case of my death.
I received the card from the National
Kidney Foundation while I was in the seminary because
I had read a magazine article about the great need for kidneys.
Thus, as a Christian and as a Franciscan, I figured, why not? I
can save someone’s life by giving away what I no longer need and
can no longer use.
In the years since then, science has greatly expanded
the number of people we can help by donating organs and tissues
after we die. These include hearts and heart valves, kidneys, livers,
lungs, corneas, blood vessels, skin, muscles and bones.
One donor can help as many as 60 people. Just think
about it: We could do more acts of mercy after death than we did
Buying and Selling Kidneys
I often donated blood until I contracted hepatitis
in Guatemala, which disqualified me. In addition, I signed up to
be a bone-marrow donor, should the right genetic match be found.
But since I never got hit by a truck, my kidneys and other organs
stayed where they were.
Then in 2001 I read an article by Michael Finkel in
The New York Times Magazine regarding the growing international
market for buying and selling kidneys. The facts were alarming:
There are about 50,000 people in this country waiting for kidney
transplants and few people who give permission to transplant their
organs after death or donate a kidney while they are still alive.
Thus, about 2,800 people in the United States alone die each year
while on the waiting list.
Many people who are on a waiting list for a kidney transplant
spend two or three years on dialysis. Some desperate people who
have the funds contact a broker who flies them to a foreign country
such as India or Turkey. There they are connected with a poor person
who is willing to sell one of his or her kidneys.
I didn’t like what I read, especially when it was
noted that the sellers are sometimes not screened sufficiently to
see if they are healthy enough to spare a kidney. In addition, they
don’t always get proper postoperative care. The buyer gets the best
of care and a new life, but the seller often returns to poverty
Finkel’s report also gave a crash course on the tremendous
progress that has been made in the last few years on organ transplants
and the drugs that can control rejection of the transplanted organs.
A healthy person who has two good kidneys can safely donate one
and live quite normally.
It seems that God has blessed us with an overcapacity
as far as kidneys are concerned. When one is removed, the other
quickly takes up the slack, grows a bit and does the whole job quite
The living donor needs no special medication, no diet restrictions
and, after recovery from the surgery, no restriction of activity
(including running marathons, having babies, playing basketball,
Any surgery, of course, has some risks. But kidney donation
by a healthy person is about as risky, statistically, as a hernia
A Kidney to Spare
It’s hard to be a Franciscan for 38 years and a priest for
30 years without something sinking in. I was faced with some alarming facts
about the selling of donor organs and the number of people who die while waiting
for transplants. Since I was in great health, I probably could live without
one of my kidneys.
My decision was influenced by some great role models. Jesus said,
“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew
25:40). And St. Francis gave everything he had to the poor: He would even rip
the sleeve off his habit if he had nothing else to give.
Thus, I contacted the organ bank nearest where I was living. The
staff there gave me lots of information to read and asked lots of questions.
Once it seemed pretty sure that I knew what I was doing and that I was reasonably
sane, they sent me to a hospital for numerous tests.
Several months later I received the results: I had two dandy kidneys
and no health problems, was in my right mind, understood the small possible
danger involved in the surgery and was ready to donate.
When permission has been given to transplant an organ from a deceased
person, there is a rush to remove and preserve the part that will be transplanted.
In addition, the organ must be matched to the proper recipient on the waiting
list, who is rushed to the hospital, where the surgical team has been alerted
and waiting. This process becomes more complex, but also more rewarding, when
multiple organs and tissues from one deceased person are donated to extend the
life of more than one recipient.
Transplanting an organ from a living donor involves different arrangements.
For example, with a living kidney donor, the organ is transplanted into the
selected recipient moments after it is removed. This increases the success rate
of live donations to 95 percent or more.
A Perfect Match
When matching a donated organ to the best recipient, there
are many factors to consider. For example, a transplant can work as long as
the blood types are compatible. But the closer the antigens are, the higher
the chance of success. (Antigens are substances capable of producing an immune
Since I was going to be a living donor, the medical professionals
were able to examine the entire list of people waiting for a kidney transplant
to find the best genetic match (the person least likely to reject the kidney
or need massive amounts of antirejection drugs). After they found the ideal
recipient, a date was set for the transplant way in advance.
At the parish where I was assigned, we had to make plans for the
period of time when I wouldn’t be able to celebrate Mass, due to my surgery
and recovery. The pastor, John Gallagher, O.F.M.Cap., was able to take up some
of the slack, but some Sunday Masses had to be put on hold for a while. Parishioners
didn’t mind when they learned the reason: They prayed for me and the recipient
of my kidney.
The day of the surgery, I had to arrive at the hospital early in
the morning. Even when I was on the gurney, hospital personnel gave me the chance
to back out gracefully and go home if I didn’t want to go through with it. I
confirmed that I still wanted to do it.
When I woke up later in the recovery room, I was sore and groggy,
but very content. By that evening, I was walking a bit. On the third day, I
During the healing process (a few days of goofing off), I experienced
some occasional sharp pangs. Tylenol was the only medication I needed for discomfort.
Some donors, however, have longer or more painful recovery periods than I experienced.
Seven days after surgery, I celebrated Mass again as usual in the
parish. Well, not exactly as usual. I choked up and could barely get the words
out when it came time to say again, “This is my body which will be given up
for you.... This is the cup of my blood....It will be shed for you...” It meant
something more to me now.
The recipient of my kidney is doing fine, off dialysis and
on to a new life. (In these “nondirected” or “Good Samaritan” donations, the
privacy of the recipient is totally respected. The recipient is free to make
the decision whether or not to contact the donor.)
It took about two months until I was fully back to normal. When
I have a medical checkup now, new doctors cannot tell that I donated a kidney
unless I tell them or they take a CAT scan.
Since my organ donation, I have had the joy of meeting a number
of other living organ donors, either in person or over the Internet. They include
men and women of various races and ages. They have donated a kidney, or half
of their liver, or bone marrow, or even part of a lung.
Patti DiClemente was 56 when she donated a kidney to
a stranger, 62-year-old Sam Baten, explains Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette.
Patti had made the commitment to become a donor 11 years earlier
when her son died while waiting for a bone-marrow transplant. Neither
Patti nor Sam knew the other’s gender or identity until after the
surgery. Patti describes a benefit she received: “I have two brothers
and they’re both dead. But now I have another brother.”
Sam, who had undergone two previous kidney transplants, said Patti’s
gift was “an answer to my prayers.”
Another living donor, Cristina Manfre, discovered that she was the
best match to her two-year-old nephew and godson, Dante Priebe, whose liver
was failing: He needed a transplant immediately. A portion of Cristina’s adult
liver was transplanted into Dante shortly before Thanksgiving in 2003. Cristina
says she has resumed all “activities and exercise,” and the family relishes
watching Dante “run, play and cause trouble.”
Doing the Right Thing
My choice to donate a kidney was one of the greatest blessings
God has ever given me. I would do it again without hesitation. It is truly a
beautiful work of mercy.
I think all Christians should sign and carry a card giving permission
to donate their organs after death, and make sure that their family knows and
will respect their wish.
I wish that every healthy Christian would at least give some thought
to the possibility of being a living donor—a kidney, part of the liver or bone
marrow—to whoever might need it.
Some people donate to relatives, others to strangers. These donors
don’t see themselves as heroes, just ordinary folks who decided to do the right
thing and are happy they did.
I recently read about a parish where the pastor announced at Mass
that a parishioner was in need of a kidney and had no relative who was a suitable
donor. Seventy-five parishioners volunteered, and the best match was selected
According to statistics, about 55 people donated a kidney to an
unknown recipient the same year I was a donor. As a work of mercy, this is quite
doable. God is love, and giving an organ is a wonderful way that modern science
has given us to express and live that love.