Joey Bich

Kidney Donor

It was Christmas vacation on the farm, 2007; the family was gathered around visiting, playing games at my parent’s house near Cavour, SD. A bunch of us were sitting at the dining room table when I asked if anyone knew how Curtis Green, a long-time family friend was doing. He had experienced a number of severe medical issues over the previous couple of years. Curt had kidney failure and was on dialysis. I asked my nurse sister, Laurie, if he was a potential transplant candidate and she thought that he was and that he had been looking into a potential donor. The whole conversation lasted 2 or 3 minutes and we went on to the next “casual” topic as is probably typical in large family gatherings.

A couple of days passed, our family visit was over and we went back home. I realized that I had been having a recurring thought about Curtis and it bothered me that in my family’s conversation about him, that we had treated him so casually. I believe that God can speak to us and for me this usually occurs in a “still, small voice.” This voice came into my consciousness as the thought in my mind that was, “maybe you should donate a kidney to Curt”. I think it took me a couple of days for this thought to register, maybe because of the overloading of sugar in my system due to the fine Christmas-treat cooking of my wife and others in my extended family. At any rate, the thought eventually crystallized in my mind and I found myself considering it.

I had a few days off from work for the holidays so had more spare time on my hands and more time to think than usual. I was in the mindset of feeling very thankful for the blessings that the Lord had given me with faith, family, health and home. Because of the Christmas season, I was feeling especially grateful to God for the gift of His Son, Jesus, and all that He had done in coming as a baby, living a perfect life, suffering and dying for me, rising from the grave, loving and forgiving me for my sins, and allowing me to have a relationship with the Almighty God and Creator of the Universe, and for the sure hope of an eternal future that I have because of His grace and mercy on me. I began to entertain the thought (the still, small voice again) that because of the great sacrifice that Jesus made for me, what a relatively small sacrifice it would be to give a kidney to someone.

I have to admit that my first reaction to this thought was, “You must have the wrong number!” “I’m a busy guy, I have a full life, I have a job with lots of responsibilities, and I have three kids to take care of.” My wife Joni was still recovering from a traumatic year of five surgeries related to cancer – my having surgery would be too much of a burden to her. This could be too traumatic for the kids. With my busy life how could I take that much time off from work? Well, my mind was very active in thinking up reasons to not do this, but they all fell flat, like weak little puny excuses, which I realized they were. With the backdrop of all that Jesus had done for me, trying to rationalize not doing a relatively miniscule thing like this for a friend just didn’t cut it.

So, for a few days I considered this idea but kept it to myself. I prayed about it and thought about the ramifications for me, my family and for Curt. I realized that I was completely ignorant about organ transplants in general and certainly about kidney donation. So I did a little research on the internet – enough to find out that it was pretty commonly done, success rates were quite good for both donor and recipient and that there was a need for donors in general. I became quite convinced that this was what the Lord wanted me to do, at least to make the offer to Curt.

About two weeks had passed since the casual conversation on the farm and I decided it was time to tell my wife Joni what I was thinking. Her first reaction was, “I knew you were going to do this!” She is quite perceptive and had discerned in the 2-minute conversation on the farm that I was going to consider giving a kidney. Incidentally, she knew this at least two days before I had consciously grasped the thought. It’s been pretty hard to surprise her with anything over the years. After I explained what I had been going through she said that if this was something I thought I was supposed to do that she would support me. I really appreciated her selfless attitude, especially in light of her struggle with cancer.

At pretty much the same time that I was convinced to be a kidney donor and Joni confirmed it with her support, the still, small voice expressed some other things to me. One was that what was important was not the ultimate outcome, but that I just needed to make the offer. I knew that I should make the kidney donation offer to Curt, and travel down whatever path that led to, and this was the extent of what I needed to do. It was like I was supposed to take a small step of obedience and leave the results to God; reminiscent of the movie, “Facing the Giants”. From that moment, in spite of the uncertainty of the future that I would experience, I had a peace that sustained me throughout the whole process to come.

So the time came to talk with Curt so I called him and asked to come for a visit. Though our parents had been close friends for decades and continue to be, Curt and I had not really seen each other much, other than an occasional brief encounter, for many years. A flood of memories swept over me as I entered his parents’ house in Yale where I had spent so much time as a child. We sat and visited a little while then I told Curt that I was led to offer him one of my kidneys. The surprised and excited response was encouraging and fulfilling to witness. Curt was actually speechless for a while, which is apparently noteworthy for him! His Mom Marlys was also there; she was a second Mom to me growing up so it was nice to share those moments with her. Though, none of us knew what the future process would be, Curt accepted my offer and the process was set in motion.

My next step was to stop by my parents’ house on the farm and tell them. When I told my Mom she said, “I’ve known for years that you would be the one to do this!” So, I guess between my wife and my Mother, I’m pretty predictable, just slow to figure things out for myself. Of course, being Mom, she was a little reluctant and worried about health effects for her son, but over time came to very much support the idea. Dad was good with it; he had thought about doing it himself but is too”chronologically experienced”.

During the next few weeks, I began the evaluation process to be a donor. First, a blood draw from my local clinic was sent to Mayo Clinic; my blood type is O positive, the universal donor, so that would match with Curt’s. More blood work was done on both Curt and me to test for antigen compatibility and other factors. Again, we turned out to be a good match, so far so good. In the meantime, Curt was undergoing his own process of testing and preparation for being a recipient. There were a couple of times along the way where it didn’t look like it was going to work. With the peace I had acquired from the start, I never felt any pressure or stress that it had to work, but just that I needed to do my part. Of course, I very much hoped that it would work for Curt’s sake.

In June came the time for me to go to Mayo Clinic and have two days of extensive testing to make sure it would be safe and effective for me as a donor as well as for Curt as a recipient. Again, Curt went through his own process parallel to mine. Each of us had a team of physicians and other professionals looking out for our best interests.

For about 30 years I have been a runner. I’ve run quite a few races, though I’ve never won one – not really built for speed. I’ve always enjoyed being fit, the time on the roads to think and relax, exercising the dogs, and the resulting endorphins. Then it occurred to me, maybe the still, small voice again, that my running fitness was not for my benefit but for someone else. Maybe all of these years and miles of running were keeping me healthy and fit so that I would be able to be a kidney donor. God’s plans are much bigger than ours and it was great to realize that He could use me for His purpose here.

So, at Mayo, they took a few, actually many, vials of blood and urine samples, conducted kidney function tests, EKG, CAT scan, chest X-rays, the most thorough physical I have ever had over a period of two days. They told me things about my health that I didn’t even know. For example, one doctor was going through my blood work and told me that I had mononucleosis as a child and I said “no, I didn’t” and he said, “yes, you did.” There was a type of marker in my blood that showed I had it, even though I had no symptoms that I knew of (my sister Jeannie had been sick with it). So I guess I believe him.

Everything turned out great; I was a good candidate for being a donor. The last test result on the afternoon of the last day was the CAT scan. As the nephrologist was looking through it he was very positive except for one issue – I had two kidney stones! This was quite a surprise as I had never had any symptoms and seemed quite ironic since I was hoping to donate a kidney. Plus, the stones were in my left kidney, which is the one they normally take because the adjacent blood vessels are longer and better suited for attaching to the recipient’s system. This was bit of a setback because my approval as a donor had to be sent to a “committee” for further review. I was told that it was unlikely that I would be approved because since I was a confirmed “stone-former”, I could have a serious issue if in the future I formed a stone that caused a blockage and had no second kidney as a back-up.

This was quite disappointing, especially to Curt, who naturally was getting his hopes up. It was another good opportunity for both of us to trust God, know that He has a plan, and leave the working out of it to Him.

After a few weeks of waiting, the committee decision came back and to my surprise I was approved to donate! I’ve had this type of thing happen before: where I’ve wanted something that I thought was good, then circumstances made me resign to give it up and be content with that, then once it is given up, the circumstances change and it happens as I first wanted. This is another way that the Lord has helped me depend on Him and not my own big plans.

This area of dependence and independence was another thing that I began to realize that I needed to experience. I’d been very healthy all my life, never had surgery, no real health problems. I’d grown up on a farm and learned the value of hard work, independence, self-sufficiency. Some of these qualities, though, can become a hindrance to one’s reliance on God, who is the Source of all strength and whom we should all be depending on rather than ourselves. So I began to look forward to the opportunity to experience surgery and recovery, being not in control of myself and letting myself be dependant on the Lord and whomever He might have take care of me.

Calendars were checked, plans made and a surgery date was set for late July. In the meantime, Curt and I and our families had the blessing of getting re-acquainted by spending some time together. By surgery day, I had continued to feel very peaceful and content about everything, still not sure that it would be successful, or that I might not have some complications or after-effects, but completely at ease. Mayo put Curt and I in adjoining pre-surgery rooms so we had a chance to visit and pray before the surgery, which was great.

My surgery was textbook routine according to Dr. Chow, a man whose hand-size I had checked out earlier. You want to know how big of an object is going to be inside your body! They called it hand-assisted laparoscopic left nephroctomy, two small incisions for instruments and one 3 inch cut for the surgeon to reach in and take out the kidney (might be a little more complicated than that). All went well for me; Curt’s journey was a much more difficult one as you will see with his account.

The first day or two of my recovery are a little blurry for me, as is probably normal for any surgery. Joni can tell you more about than I could. I do remember being a little self-conscious about the nurses doing all the checking out that they do, but after a couple of times it didn’t bother me at all. I also remember the second night, which was when I had the most pain and didn’t sleep more than a few minutes at a time. In spite of my discomfort and inability to sleep I remember feeling happy and content with my circumstances, like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Someone suggested that it could have been due to the narcotics I was on! That may have had some impact, but I believe the Lord was just giving me what I needed at that time; He was taking care of me.

The hospital stay was three days, then to my sister’s near Rochester for a couple of days then home. Walking was recommended for the recovery process, which I really enjoyed and made that a big part of my routine. For the first walk in the hospital I could only muster about 100 feet but within a week I was up to two miles twice a day. Of course I had to push it a little to discover the limits, so was set back a day or two occasionally, but overall my recovery progressed well. I tried running a little after 3 weeks but was still too sore. At four weeks I started mixing in some jogging with my walks and that felt pretty good. After six weeks I was back to work full time and running as much as I wanted, though a little slower than usual.

Now, about three months from surgery, I find that days will go by without my even thinking bout it; admittedly this may be partially due to being over 50. As I felt from the start, it was really a pretty small, but important for me to do. I would donate a kidney again in a heartbeat, but they won’t let you do it more than once!

The average wait for kidney transplant recipients is about five years. Life on dialysis is not pleasant and the average life expectancy on dialysis is five years. Many patients don’t survive long enough to receive a kidney. Patients do significantly better receiving kidneys from live donors, as compared to those taken after the donor’s death.

The recipient’s insurance always covers all medical costs incurred by the donor, including all the initial evaluations all the way through follow-up care. I was able to use paid sick leave from my work so my only costs were associated with trips to Mayo Clinic, which were not that expensive.

Donating an organ to someone I knew was especially rewarding, but knowing what I know now about the need and the relative ease of donating, I would probably be an anonymous donor. For this, you would be evaluated as a donor, and then the medical facility would match you with someone on the waiting list. To give a stranger hope like this would be a very meaningful gesture and one that would bless both the donor and the recipient.

So, now Curt is doing well. No more dialysis, diet restrictions, or fatigue. He has a new future he is looking forward to and re-engaging life to the fullest. My life is back to normal with the exception that I have the underlying satisfaction that comes with knowing that I have fulfilled one small work that my Lord had prepared for me to do!