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Lifelong Friendship and the Gift of “a New Life”

For Marilyn (Jackson) Robinson ’75, one of the lifelong friendships she formed at Bethel led to the gift of new life. But after fellow Bethel alumna Debbie (Hanley) Szymczyk ’78 donated one of her kidneys to Robinson, the two women are giving the glory to God.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

December 20, 2019 | 12:45 p.m.

Debbie (Hanley) Szymczyk ’78 and Marilyn (Jackson) Robinson ’75

Debbie (Hanley) Szymczyk ’78 and Marilyn (Jackson) Robinson ’75 pose for a photo just months after Szymczyk donated one of her kidneys to Robinson, who was suffering from kidney failure after years of Type 1 diabetes.

Days after Debbie (Hanley) Szymczyk ’78 donated a kidney to Marilyn (Jackson) Robinson ’75, the two reflected as they recovered in the hospital about their meeting at Bethel in the 1970s. Szymczyk asked Robinson if she realized that God knew then what would happen.

“God knew,” they both agree.

To Robinson and Szymczyk, their story is a God story. It’s a story of faith and answered prayers. Looking back, they see God’s hand during years of friendship, Robinson’s years of waiting for a donor, and in the support and prayers they received along the way. Since Szymczyk helped save Robinson’s life by donating a kidney, the two friends have frequently shared their stories from their church community to the people they interact with each day, always highlighting God’s grace. “This whole thing is worth it when we can give God the glory for it,” Szymczyk says.

For 43 years, Robinson has had Type 1 diabetes, which comes with major side effects like kidney disease. Her kidneys gradually worsened until doctors told her two years ago that she needed either dialysis or a transplant. Though she refused dialysis treatments, she trusted that God would provide a donor. “He was so wonderful the whole time. I had one miracle after another,” Robinson says. But kidney patients often wait years for a donor, with many heartbreaks along the way. During Robinson’s two-year wait, several donors came forward, but doctors disqualified each for various reasons. As she waited, Robinson remembers many people asking her if she was depressed. Her answer was always the same: not at all. “I had total confidence that God was going to provide this,” she says.

“I never lost faith,” she adds.

Robinson and Szymczyk met at Bethel through mutual acquaintances and quickly became friends, despite being in different years and different programs. Szymczyk majored in French elementary education, while Robinson completed a special program in sociology and social work. Along with their education, Szymczyk and Robinson say they value how they formed lifelong friendships at Bethel. “Those deep friendships are really what was the most important,” Szymczyk says.

Robinson and Szymczyk remained close even as their lives diverged after college. Szymczyk spent 40 years teaching English as a second language. Now retired, she still teaches a few students online, but she’s now focused on leading over-the-phone prayer mentoring through a service she started called Thirty Minute Telephone Mentoring, which she calls TM to the second power—or TM2. “It’s just an incredible adventure that the Lord’s led me on,” she says. Meanwhile, Robinson spent almost two decades as a fraud investigator for the government. She is now a decorated mystery novelist under the pen name Marilyn Jax. Along with publishing five books—with a sixth on the way—Robinson is active in the writing community. She strives to serve up-and-coming writers by leading workshops in the Twin Cities and around the world.

During all their life changes, the two friends remained in touch—even as Robinson settled in Edina, Minnesota, and Szymczyk in San Diego, California. As Robinson’s health worsened, Szymczyk provided steadfast support, encouragement, and prayers. But Szymczyk assumed she was not a capable donor because her mother had endured kidney issues. She even feared she would one day face kidney issues like her mother. But during Robinson’s wait for a donor, Szymczyk took control of her own health and joined Weight Watchers and lost more than 50 pounds.

Then over summer 2019, Szymczyk felt the Holy Spirit prompting her to be tested as a donor for Robinson. She discussed the idea with her husband and a few friends, and all encouraged her to pursue it.

I was ecstatic. I kind of knew instantly that this was the perfect one. I waited and waited and God was working in the background the entire time. I just knew right away that this was the one.

— Marilyn (Jackson) Robinson ’75

After learning she was a preliminary match, Szymczyk flew to the University of Minnesota for further testing. Doctors told her, “You’re as perfect a match as we can have.” Szymczyk also learned that had she volunteered before improving her own health, doctors likely would have not accepted her as a donor. Szymczyk and Robinson see it as proof that theirs is a God story.

She received Szymczyk’s kidney on August 28, 2019, and the surgery went well. “I feel like I have a new life now, really,” she says. She is gradually recovering and speaks highly of the team of doctors helping her through each step. Szymczyk describes her recovery as the donor as a sprint, while it’s a marathon for Robinson. Even after her pain subsided, Robinson struggled with low blood pressure and the rigors of intense daily requirements. She still needs to drink 2 to 3 liters of water a day, along with taking many pills. She also keeps daily logs of her blood pressure, weight, temperature, blood sugar, and more. Though overwhelming, Robinson admits she has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season.

Szymczyk says people often commend her or call her a hero for her donation, but she simply says it was all God’s plan. And after seeing God’s hand in action, she couldn’t say no. The women saw their story touch many people leading up to and after the surgery. Now, they hope their story can bring awareness to the importance of people giving kidney donations, especially since more than 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney. To them, it’s a miracle that God gave each person two kidneys while they can live a healthy life with only one.

“God’s timing is always perfect, from beginning to end,” Robinson says.

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