Spring 2010 | By Nicolle Westlund '09
More than 106,000 people in the United States are waiting for life. They are candidates on the organ donor list, needing everything from kidneys and lungs to bone marrow and hearts. Even more people are in need of various types of tissue and blood because of injuries or disease.
In 1 John 3:16, we’re reminded that Jesus Christ gave His blood for all of us waiting for and needing His redemption. He died on the cross demonstrating what true love is—the laying down of one’s life for another. In following His example, we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, says John.
As adventurous Christ-followers, numerous Bethel community members are taking John’s words to heart. They are giving up parts of themselves—quite literally—for each other, neighbors, and even perfect strangers who need organs. Find out how the transplanting is transforming both the giver and receiver, and learn how you, too, can give to demonstrate the love of Christ.
College roommates share almost everything, from TVs and iPod docks to cereal and cold germs. But kidneys?
In April 2010, Cheryl Jahnke ’89 gave one of her kidneys to her freshman roommate from Bethel, Holly (Wenzel) Swanson ’89. In 1993, four years after graduation and only three months after Swanson had gotten married (with Jahnke as her maid of honor, far right photo), doctors diagnosed Swanson with polycystic kidney disease, a disorder in which clusters of cysts form within the kidneys. It’s one of the most common genetic disorders in the United States and affects about 600,000 people. As the diseased tissue grows, it crowds out the healthy tissue, eventually leaving the patient with complications ranging from high blood pressure to kidney failure.
At first, Swanson kept her illness to herself, only telling her husband Randy, her parents, and Jahnke and her parents. Little did she know that when Jahnke found out about Swanson’s possible need for a kidney, she decided she would give hers up. “I didn’t tell Holly because I knew how stubborn she was, and figured there was no point in arguing then,” says Jahnke.
Fast-forward 16 years to spring 2009. Swanson’s kidneys were failing, and she began looking at options. “I’d already made the decision not to seek a living donor from a registry of strangers,” she says. “I strongly feel that when it comes to adult transplant recipients, parents of minor children should have priority for organs.” Finding a deceased donor usually takes about five years, so Swanson anticipated a “downward slide into dialysis and continuing degeneration.”
Jahnke knew it was time to approach Swanson. “[Cheryl] told me, ‘I knew you’d say no at first, so I figured I’d just wait until things got really ugly,’” recalls Swanson. “Then she said, ‘I know I’d miss having you around a lot more than I’ll miss having a kidney.’”
Not completely convinced, Swanson spent the next few days researching living donors, asking questions of doctors, and talking to Jahnke’s family. She eventually accepted her former roommate’s offer. Jahnke was declared a match, and preparations for transplant surgery in April 2010 began.
“People tell me it is a selfless act, but really, I’m doing what I can to keep my friend around and healthy,” says Jahnke.
Swanson is thankful her donor is her best friend. “Do I think God put Cheryl in my life to save it?” she said. “That would be selfish and simplistic. But did I meet her in order to learn from her patience, generosity, gentleness, cheerfulness, and all the other blessings I could tell you about for hours? Certainly!”
The transplant was performed successfully, and at the time of publication, both Swanson and Jahnke were well into recovery. Follow their journey at Holly’s blog.
Dan Hunt ’95 and his wife Erica have made service a part of their life together. When they first got married, they decided to move to West Virginia to live in a low socioeconomic area. They again chose a low-income area when they moved back to Minnesota, settling in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. Says Hunt, “We try to be aware of needs in our neighborhood—needs for food, for a place to sleep, etc. And our nightly prayer is, ‘God, if there’s a way we can participate in providing those needs, show us.’”
One of those needs came through Hunt’s work as the director of housing for Urban Homeworks, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that rehabilitates small, multi-unit and single-family homes in the Twin Cities with the help of local volunteers. Hunt places tenants in the renovated homes and builds relationships with the families who reside in the communities. “Part of my official job is knowing the families’ needs,” he says.
Hunt knew that one of his tenants, Sherry Hanson, mother of four (and in the process of adopting two more children), was having kidney problems, and that she was on dialysis three days a week for six hours at a time. He was no stranger to dialysis, as his father died from cancer-related kidney failure in 1992. So Hunt offered to get tested. Hanson brushed it off, but Hunt was serious, proceeding through three levels of testing that ultimately revealed that he was a match.
“She was really surprised that I’d actually gone through with it,” Hunt says. “And after she found out, she dragged her feet. I told her I was committed, that I wasn’t going anywhere.”
While Hanson wavered, Hunt’s family embraced the idea. “I came home one night and over dinner I said to Erica, ‘I offered Sherry my kidney,’” he says. “And she replied with something like, ‘Okay. Would you please pass the peas?’ It was that simple.” Part of Hunt’s motivation was having seen his dad suffer. “I never wavered on whether or not to go forward,” he says, “because I knew the impact the transplant would have on Sherry’s life.”
In January 2010, Hanson finally made the appointment, and the two-hour surgery took place on February 23. Hunt was in the hospital for two days and only missed five days of work. Just seven weeks after the surgery, he says he’s back to 100 percent. Hanson’s recovery also went well, and doctors predict that it’s likely she’ll never have to be on dialysis again.
Hunt is as thankful for Hanson as she is for his kidney. “It’s a little more involved to give someone a kidney than to give someone $5 to stay in a shelter for the night,” he says, “but that’s the way I want to live.”
In 2004 when current Bethel seminarian Sarah Burton began her freshman year at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, donating a piece of herself wasn’t on her college “bucket list.” But, when the men’s basketball team held a drive to join the National Bone Marrow Registry, Burton thought, “why not?” “They took a tiny vial of blood and swiped my cheek with some cotton swabs to get my DNA,” she recalls. “It was very easy.”
Five years passed. In July 2009, the registry called to say she was a 9-out-of-10 match for a patient, and thus, at the top of their list. A few weeks later, the day after Burton turned 23, they called to confirm and officially ask her to be a bone marrow donor. At this point, Burton had moved to the Twin Cities and was working at a church and pursuing a master of divinity degree at Bethel Seminary. She spent the next several weeks at information meetings about being a bone marrow donor, signing necessary paperwork, and completing medical tests. With a clean bill of health, she began taking iron pills three times a day and spent the next few weeks praying.
During her surgery, doctors removed bone marrow from two spots on her pelvic bone. “The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the OR, and everyone was asking how I was doing, and chuckling because I was as smiley after the procedure as I was before. (I’m really always smiley unless I have too much homework!)”
Burton had two large bruises where the marrow had been harvested and she was a little sore, but she returned to her seminary classes the next week.
“I don’t feel brave; I was terrified. I don’t love needles. I had never spent the night in a hospital,” she explains. “However, I love service. This is the biggest commitment I’ve made to serve someone else. A stranger. And, really, I think this is a little bit of what it means to be a human being, to be a follower of Christ.”
Fellow donor Joel Carlson ’93 agrees. He had discovered that more than 80,000 people without organ matches were waiting for a kidney and felt God leading him to become a donor. So, the testing process began at the University of Minnesota. In a daylong session, Carlson was given physical and mental assessments to determine if he was qualified to donate. He was also briefed on post-operative pain and told that he could no longer play contact sports. Then, on February 25, 2009, Carlson began the five-hour procedure to have a kidney removed and donated to an anonymous recipient who will have the opportunity to contact Carlson in the future, if he or she chooses. “I feel connected to the recipient only from our common bond now,” Carlson says. “But I have never met him or her, so it’s kind of a different connection.”
Even though the process was long and he had his share of stitches and recovery, Carlson says that once he understood that the surgery wasn’t about him, nothing was painful. “I was able to put my short-term pains aside because I knew I was doing this for a much better purpose,” he says. “Life is not meant to be lived just for the sake of yourself. We are called to go out and show love, and that can take so many forms. I feel like this was my way to do that.”