Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Gift from God

Mark Peterson set down chips and sodas on the tables as he prepared for what should have been a routine church get-together. He had no idea his life was about to change. At the moment, he was simply a man putting out snacks on a Thursday night.

Soon he heard voices, a murmur from the small group of men that had embedded itself deeply into his life. On this summer evening in 2008, Peterson was a homebuilder trying to hang on to his business in a crumbling market. Raising two young children with his wife in uncertain and turbulent economic times occasionally kept him up at night, but like most men, the powerfully built 36-year-old never let on he was worried. His men’s Bible study group at East Park Church in Vancouver, Washington, was beginning to teach him that his stoic cowboy image was foolish.

Once a month, the 15 men in the group gathered for two hours to grapple with tough and sensitive issues—family, relationships, jobs—and to share their doubts and concerns. They had helped Peterson see faith as more than a once-a-week obligation. Growing up in a remote section of Oregon, Peterson, his parents, and his five siblings would pile into their wood-paneled, nine-seat station wagon on Sundays for an 80-mile round-trip to church. But Peterson felt no personal connection with God, and eventually grew bored and then disillusioned with religion.

Though the concepts of God and Jesus Christ remained vague to Peterson, he knew that when he and his wife, Becky, had children, a church life might be good for the kids. A friend told the Petersons about East Park Church, not too far from their home, and they asked to meet the pastor, Dave Williams. The meeting took place in a noisy fast-food restaurant. Over hamburgers and French fries they discussed God’s love and the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus. Peterson wondered if that’s what he’d been missing in his church experience growing up. He wondered if that is what he desired. He and his wife joined the congregation and found their answer, soon committing their lives to Christ.

Having set out the snacks on this particular Thursday evening, Peterson spotted a newcomer—a pale man he’d never seen at the church before. The newcomer, Wayne Yancey, was also 36, and married with a couple of kids. That Yancey was even in church was a Christmas Eve miracle. As a boy, Yancey hadn’t attended church. Later, he joined a Catholic church only because his high school sweetheart wanted to be married there. They eventually dropped out because they just didn’t feel any personal connection to God.

Then on Christmas Eve 2006, Yancey’s wife, Gina, suggested they attend East Park, a church she’d heard about from a friend. Yancey felt more like spending the evening at home but gave in to his wife.
The moment he stepped into East Park, Yancey felt something warm and accepting about the place. Somehow, he felt like he was home, almost as if God had been waiting for him there. Commitment followed. Soon he and Gina were attending every week.

One day, Gina spotted an item in the church bulletin: Pastor Williams was promoting small groups for men. “You should go,” she told Wayne. After the Christmas Eve experience, Yancey had learned to trust his wife’s instincts. “I’ll give it a try,” he said.

The men’s meetings always ended with prayer requests, followed by a time of group prayer. Peterson had recently discovered how profoundly prayer would always connect him to the Holy Spirit. True faith, he was struggling to learn, was trusting in God to provide without knowing exactly how he would do that. During the previous few years, Peterson had felt God’s spirit poking and prodding him not to worry about the future. He considered the nudges little tests, almost as if God were trying to draw him closer and toward something bigger.

Prayer went around the circle and then the new guy, Yancey, screwed up his courage to speak. “I’d like you to pray for me,” he said. “I need a new kidney.”

Five years earlier, Yancey’s doctor had become worried during a routine physical exam. He sent him to a specialist, who found that Yancey’s kidneys were deteriorating rapidly. Without mechanical help from a dialysis machine, his kidneys would soon not be able to filter waste, regulate fluids, and help the bone marrow create blood cells. His body would slowly poison itself to death.

Over time, Yancey’s kidneys had failed to the point where he now needed 15 hours of dialysis a week to stay alive. He told the group that the process left him exhausted, depressed, and bitter.

When the meeting ended, Peterson walked out to the parking lot with Yancey. “Tell me about the situation with your kidneys,” Peterson said. Yancey explained that dialysis wasn’t working well anymore, and if he wanted to live, he needed a new kidney. “I need to find a donor,” he said.

Yancey had been on the organ donation waiting list for two years. He’d learned that he was one of more than 85,000 people in the United States waiting for a kidney, and that each year only about 16,000 of them get one. More than 4,500 would die in 2008 while waiting.

Doctors had told Yancey he was free to find a living donor on his own, but he’d had no luck in that search.

“Can just anyone donate?” Peterson asked. He listened carefully as Yancey explained that the living donor had to be a genetic match. And that no money could change hands, that it is illegal to sell body parts.

“So you’re telling me that you’re just waiting for a kidney?” Peterson said. “You’re just waiting for one that works?”

“That’s right,” Yancey said. The two men looked at each other for a long moment. Finally Yancey pulled out his wallet and fished out a business card. He handed it to Peterson. It read “Legacy Transplant Services, Portland Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center.”

“If you want to know more about transplants,” Yancey said, “these people can tell you everything.”

Peterson realized how little he knew about this guy Wayne, but felt his chest swell with emotion. He was overwhelmed by a question: Was he supposed to give his kidney to Wayne? There was doubt, but he couldn’t discount that little voice he was hearing.

“Lord,” he prayed, “is this something you really want me to do?”

By the time Peterson arrived home, the answer came to him, filling him with fear. Walking into his new, 3,000-square-foot house, he greeted Becky.

“How was your group?” she asked.

“There’s this guy there,” Peterson said. “I don’t know much about him, but he said he needs a kidney.” He paused, not sure where to start. “Becky,” he said, “I feel God’s telling me to give this guy one of my kidneys.”

“What are you talking about?!”

He chose his words carefully. “I want to try to be his donor,” he said. “I feel I’m supposed to do this.”

Becky finally broke the silence that followed. “This is a lot of news to digest,” she said.

“There’s a lot more I need to know,” her husband said as he tried to reassure her. “I would have to get tested to see if I’m a match.”

Becky relaxed. She felt the odds were slim he would be a match. Besides, with his background, no doctor would recommend him as a donor. Five years earlier Peterson had contracted chicken pox and ended up with viral pneumonia and a blood infection. He’d been rushed to the intensive care unit where he slipped into a coma. The doctor put him on a ventilator and told Becky that he might die.

His recovery had been long and rough. The illness, and the drugs to fight it, had caused his organs to shut down. Becky felt certain her husband’s own kidneys had been compromised by all that he had been through.

Later that night, Peterson said one final, silent, prayer: “God, if you don’t want this to happen, please stop it.” A part of him hoped that God would say, “Stop.”

On his way to work the next morning, the reality of what he was contemplating crashed in on Peterson. What about his own health? Was he risking complications in surgery? What would happen if his one remaining kidney was compromised? How would it affect his family? Should he really do this for a man he barely knew?

What Peterson did know was that Yancey was a brother in Christ and a member of his small group. Wasn’t that what a small group was for? To be there for each other? Peterson prayed for God’s guidance. Then he picked up his cell phone and punched in the number Yancey had given him. He reached the transplant coordinator and left a message. Days passed. No reply. He called again. Still nothing.

It was almost a relief. God had put him to the test, and Peterson had answered the call. Maybe that was the confirmation he needed.

But a week later, his cell phone rang. It was the transplant coordinator. She told him she’d like to start the screening process. She mailed him a packet of information, then set up two visits at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center, where they took two separate blood tests to determine if he was a potential candidate.

During their ensuing small-group meetings, Peterson revealed nothing about what he was doing. But he did ask around the church to learn more about Yancey. He found they were the same age, born just four days apart.

At home, Becky was growing increasingly worried. One night, when the kids were asleep, she told him they needed to talk. “You have to tell me more about this,” she said, and there was an edge in her voice. “I want to meet these transplant people.” He said okay.

The meeting took place in an examination room. The Petersons were joined by the coordinator and a kidney specialist, a gentle doctor who understood Becky’s fears. He explained what the surgery entailed. There were risks, as in any surgery, but he assured her the operation was safe. And, he said, Peterson’s remaining kidney would actually grow to compensate for the increased work. Her husband would live a long and healthy life with one kidney.

Becky told the doctor of Peterson’s near-death experience in the ICU, and her worries about his damaged system being further strained by the removal of a kidney. The doctor said that her husband had to be in perfect health to be a donor. And he had to be a close match, or Yancey’s body would reject the kidney.

“We’re not yet even sure if your husband is a match,” the doctor said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

“Can he back out?” she asked. “Can he say no?”

The coordinator spoke. “Listen to me,” she said. “He can back out anytime. Even when he’s on the operating table.”

That night, Mark Peterson prayed: “Lord, I’m going to take the next step and the next. I’m in your hands.”
Two days later, the coordinator called to say Peterson had made it through round one. Both his kidneys were healthy, with no signs of damage.

Becky Peterson took the news as a sign: If God had healed Mark’s body from his previous medical scare, then he could heal both Mark and Wayne together.

Five months had passed since the small group meeting where Peterson and Yancey had met. “Lord, I am ready.” Peterson prayed.

Not much later, Peterson was in his truck, moving between job sites, when his cell phone rang. The transplant coordinator was stunned. She told Peterson that he was not only a good match but a perfect match. She gave him some dates for the operation. After discussing it with Becky, Peterson chose a date three weeks later, in November.

“How should I tell Wayne?” Peterson asked Becky. He had not mentioned a word of it to Yancey. Becky told him to ask Wayne to lunch.

Peterson called Yancey and invited him to meet at a local restaurant. Aside from the conversation in the parking lot in June, the two men had never spent any time alone. Yancey assumed that Peterson was simply reaching out in friendship to a fellow small-group member.

After a casual talk, Peterson asked about Yancey’s health.

“I had a tube surgically implanted in me,” he said. “That’s great news.”

“Why?” Peterson asked.

“I’m not getting better,” Yancey said, “but this means I can do dialysis at home. I’ve had to go to Portland three times a week. I’ve missed work and time with my family.”

Peterson took a deep breath. “Say,” he asked, “what are you doing November third?”

Yancey shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Working, I guess. Why?”

Peterson was about to answer when the waitress appeared to fill their water glasses. He shifted in his seat, tapped his foot impatiently, and waited until she went to the far side of the restaurant.

“Would you be up to meeting me at the hospital?” Peterson asked. “It’s about your kidney.”

Yancey looked at him for a long time. “You want to be tested?” Yancey asked.

“No,” Peterson said. “I’ve already done all that.”

Yancey was speechless.

“Wayne, we’re a match,” Peterson said. “A perfect match,” he said. “I’m going to give you one of my kidneys.”

Yancey felt himself choking up. He struggled to find the words to express his surprise. And gratitude. This person sitting across from him—almost a stranger—was giving him the gift of life. “Mark,” he asked, “are you sure?”

Peterson nodded. “This isn’t a gift from me,” Peterson said. “This is a gift from God.”
Yancey’s wife, Gina, burst into tears when she heard the news, and called everyone in the church she could think of to tell them what had transpired. Word spread from member to member about the miracle taking place in their midst.
Just before 8 a.m. on the morning of the surgery, nurses began prepping Yancey. They inserted an IV line into his arm, and another that led directly to an artery near his heart. He heard the muted beeping of the machines monitoring his vital signs. During his life, Yancey had struggled with being in control and had difficulty letting God lead the way. But he felt at peace, that God was with him, and had been all along. He could tell that his wife was frightened by what was happening, the machines, the tubes, everything—but he was not. Yancey took her hand in his.

Peterson appeared in the doorway, the two men shook hands, and nurses led them away to finish preparing them for their surgeries. Once ready, the two men were wheeled into separate operating rooms across the hall from each other. A five-person donor team, including two surgeons who would remove Peterson’s kidney, coordinated via speakerphone with a five-person team that would transplant it in Yancey.

Yancey’s surgeons would open him up only when Peterson’s team was sure there would be no complications. The operation had to be timed to the second. Peterson’s kidney had to be cleaned and prepared, and then implanted quickly so surgeons could start blood flowing to the organ and get it working.

Surgeons made three small incisions on Peterson’s side, then slipped in tools and a small camera to guide them to the kidney. Next, they began cutting delicately. Finally, a surgeon made a larger incision that allowed the team to remove the organ. Once out, it was placed in a waiting basin, covered with ice, and hustled across the hallway. There Yancey’s surgeons moved swiftly, giving hope to a man whose life had been slowly ebbing the last several years.

Nerves were tense in the waiting room where the two wives and other members of East Park Church had gathered. When the doctor appeared, he grinned.

“It was beautiful,” he said. “I couldn’t have found a better match for Wayne.” Both wives and several East Park members wept at that news.

Four hours after the first incision, both men were recovering in different wings of the hospital.

“You’ll be amazed at how Wayne looks,” the transplant coordinator told the two wives. “He’s a new man.”

The next day, Peterson felt well enough to ask his wife to get a wheelchair and take him to Yancey. The Petersons were stunned when they entered the room. The Yancey they knew as pale and generally grim now had rosy cheeks and a smile on his face.

Becky pushed the wheelchair close to the bed. The two men gave each other a high five.

A Bible passage came to Yancey. He remembered it was somewhere in James but couldn’t remember it word for word. But the essence, he knew: Faith without deeds is a dead faith. This man sitting beside Yancey’s bed had heard God calling to him, and he had the faith to follow even though it went against all worldly logic. Both men had trusted God for the impossible and God had provided a miracle.

“Thank you,” Yancey said. “You’re my brother.”

“You’re welcome, my friend,” Peterson replied.
In the weeks that followed, the match turned out better than doctors could have expected. There were no complications for either man, nor would there be even a year later. Life returned to normal. But not really. How could it?

Two men—once strangers—had been guided to the same church and then led to a small men’s group. One man gave life to the other. They would be forever bonded. Blood brothers. Blood brothers in Christ.

On the Sunday before Christmas, Yancey sought out Peterson at church services. For weeks Yancey had been searching for an appropriate gift for this friend who had given him a second chance at life.

What do you give a man whose sacrifice has given you a new future? What do you give a man who allows you to come home healthy, ready to play with your kids and spend time with your wife?

He handed Peterson a wrapped package about the size of a hardback book.

“Merry Christmas, Mark.”

Peterson shifted, embarrassed. “Come on, Wayne. You didn’t have to do anything,” he said. “You know that.”

The two men shook hands. “Merry Christmas, Mark.”

“Merry Christmas, Wayne.”

Outside the church, Peterson carefully pulled the paper apart. Inside was a color photograph in a wooden frame. The frame had the word “friendship” printed on it, and surrounded a photo of the moment when the two men met in the ICU after their surgeries: Two men, clasping their hands, smiling.

Mark Peterson walked to his car, started the engine. He had to get home. Christmas was coming, and he’d been given the perfect gift. He would display the photograph on the living room mantel.

He knew that Christmas would have new meaning for both the Peterson and Yancey families. And indeed it did. Last year, the children of both men discovered what giving is really all about. It isn’t about video games and toys. It’s about reflecting how much God loves us by passing on that love to someone else. Sometimes it’s a gift that requires sacrifice. Sometimes it brings new life. But always it shares the truth of him for whom Christmas is named.

As Mark Peterson turned the car out of the church parking lot and merged with the traffic, words of prayer came to his lips: “Dear Lord, thank you. Thank you.”

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