2016-06-30

Originally printed in the Lexington Herald-Leader (Kentucky). Excerpted with permission of the author.

It's 1 a.m. I'm kneeling in the stillness of a small chapel to pray. I do this every week. Parishioners at my Catholic church, St. Luke, pray in shifts in this Eucharistic Adoration Chapel 24 hours a day, seven days a week, breaking only for part of Holy Week.

My shift is 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. every Friday, a time when the world outside my church is silent.

Often, the time is deeply spiritual. But sometimes, in the silence, as I hear my prayers go out, I know that my mind is wandering. At those times, the whole thing feels routine. I begin with a few short prayers.

Then I read the bulletin board filled with "sticky notes" that request specific prayers. Somebody has a relative who has been diagnosed with cancer. Someone else is having marital problems and needs help with rent money.

Then I pray the rosary.

The silence is ideal for reflection. And on this night, last September, I had something to contemplate. This night was anything but routine.

For the first time ever, I added my own sticky note to the prayer board.

"Please pray that the recent blood test I took comes back positive so that I can donate my kidney to my friend Charlie."

Charlie Tremont is 47. He was diagnosed with kidney disease more than half a lifetime ago.

When I offered my prayer, Charlie had been on dialysis for 23 years. Three-and-a-half hours for each session, three times a week. In all, I figure, he had spent 11,200 hours tied to the machine that cleaned his blood.

But his time was running out. Without a new kidney, Charlie's quality of life--already deteriorating--would continue to slip. Death would follow.

Charlie had questions about his future, but doctors found it increasingly difficult to come up with answers because so few people had been on dialysis for so long.

"I decided I could write the final chapter of the book here and that could be the one that they keep referring to," he told me, "or I could get out of this business of dialysis and pursue a treatment with transplantation."

So in 1997, Charlie went on a waiting list for a cadaver kidney.

Charlie and I became friends by marriage. We both met our wives during college days in northeastern Ohio. Charlie met Karen at Baldwin-Wallace College. I met Margie at the University of Akron.

I don't recall exactly when Margie told me Charlie had begun a quest for a transplant. I think my initial reaction was limited to a "Wow!"

Karen had told us that her family was praying about the matter. They were seeking the intercession of Padre Pio, the Italian monk who seems destined for sainthood. Pio, who died in 1968, was a stigmatist, one who bears the wounds of Christ. Catholics often invoke his name in prayers seeking miraculous cures.

One night--it was 1998, I think--Margie hung up the phone after another update from Karen. No luck on a kidney yet.

And then I said something. I didn't think about it. I still don't fully know why I said it.

I said it matter-of-factly. Even quietly. I said, "I could donate a kidney to Charlie."

And my wife looked at me as if I were nuts.

More phone updates, "I could donates," and wild looks followed over the months. But Margie's puzzled glances began to show a little less disbelief. She agreed to ask Karen what I needed to do to be tested.

"Well, first he has to have O-positive blood," Karen said.

End of story, Margie thought.

"O-positive," I said the next day, when I pulled out my blood-type card.

More phone calls.

A lab kit was shipped from Cleveland. Twelve test-tube-size vials of my blood were drawn, then air-expressed to Cleveland.

Days passed. A week. Two weeks. Three.

That's when I posted my prayer request on the chapel bulletin board.

If you had asked me a year ago whether the prayers of an ordinary man like me are answered, I probably would have told you yes. But there was always a small part of me looking for tangible proof.

Today, I will tell you yes. Definitely.

At 2 a.m., my prayer shift was over, and I went home to bed. Shortly after 9 a.m. that morning, a nurse from Cleveland was on the phone.

"Exactly how are you related to Charlie?" she asked.

The blood test matched well enough that we might have been brothers.

In the days after learning I might be "the match," my nerves were a bit frayed. I felt a strange mixture of anticipation and fear about the thought of giving up a body part.

I headed to church. But this time, I went during the middle of the week, seeking help at St. Peter's in Lexington.

And I swear Rev. Dan Noll's reading of the gospel that day was meant for me.

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul," Jesus tells his apostles in Matthew 10:28. "Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna."

A great calm fell over me.

On the eve of surgery, Karen, a third-grade teacher at St. Rita's Catholic school in Solon, received a "spiritual bouquet" from her students. It was addressed to "Mr. Tremont and Mark." Each student listed prayer intentions such as "one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be." We got a kick out of one that offered "one Mass, two Our Fathers, and three Hope You Feel Betters."

I had expected that neither a gospel nor even a spiritual bouquet would sustain me in the dark hours of March 28, the day of surgery. I expected terror.

I was wrong.

I arose at 4:15 a.m., calm as ever, and took what would be my last shower for several days.

After checking in at 6 a.m., Charlie and I were in "pre-op" by 7, dressed in goofy-but-practical gowns.

By 7:15, anesthesia was making its way through my body from an intravenous drip in my hand. I hung on to my senses long enough to flash "thumbs up" to Margie and Karen.

Then I was unconscious.

My left side was cut open, just below the ribs. The incision was not quite eight inches long.

Dr. David Seaman, assisted by Shulak, removed my left kidney, about the size of a fist, during an operation that lasted more than three hours.

Shulak took my kidney to an adjoining operating room and prepared it for implantation into Charlie's left front side. His diseased kidneys would remain in place.

Before Charlie's surgery began, though, Shulak was called back to the first operating room.

A clamp had slipped off an artery. I was losing blood. Shulak remembers such a thing happening only once in the last six or seven years.

Now, my surgery was inching closer to four hours than three. But the problem was soon fixed, and Shulak began to work his magic on Charlie.

No complications.

Doctors told our wives that everyone was fine and the kidney was...working.

Tears of joy.

Words of praise.

Hugs and kisses.

A visit to a nearby chapel.

Wish I could have seen it all.

Because of the slipped clamp, I needed a CT scan and blood transfusion the next day. Then I developed a fever. Nurses checked my "vitals" every 15 minutes for several hours.

I found it difficult to sleep while lying flat because of nasal congestion. And when I did sleep, I awoke with splitting headaches.

But I was sitting in a chair by Thursday, on my feet by Friday, slowly roaming halls by Saturday, and discharged from the hospital Sunday.

Charlie was placed on an anti-rejection drug "cocktail" immediately after surgery.

The initial cocktail recipe made him feel awful for several days. A new formula had him back on track by Sunday.

On Monday, the sixth day after surgery, he experienced initial signs of rejection. And there was a suspected leak, we learned, between his bladder and his new kidney.

Steroids helped to fight off rejection, and the suspected leak turned out to be a false alarm.

By Tuesday, Charlie was much improved. By Thursday, he was released from the hospital.

You'll never feel alone if you take part in a transplant. Charlie and Karen were flooded with support, but Margie and I were, too. Family, friends, and neighbors too numerous to single out offered visits, cards, phone calls, gifts, and prayers. And lots of e-mail.

His first night home from the hospital, Charlie tasted orange juice, a dialysis no-no, for the first time in 20 years. So far, so good.

"Charlie's prognosis is that he has a 90 percent chance of this kidney working a year," Shulak said, "probably a 70 to 80 percent chance for five years, and probably close to 70 percent chance for a 10-year survival of the kidney.

"At that point onward, nobody knows for sure. But if he gets out to 10 years, it's probably not going to fail."

One symptom of his kidney disease is already improved. An overactive parathyroid had produced unwanted phosphorous that collected in his fingers and left them crooked.

Within days of his surgery, the phosphorous had dissipated. He could extend his fingers straight.

The red has left his eyes and returned to his skin color.

His appetite is back, his energy on full throttle, his weight up 5 pounds.

In a way, he is born again.

In a way, I am too.

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