The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Giving life

Organ transplants offer renewed health, but many wait for donors

Minutes count to people who need organ transplants. Every 13 minutes another name is added to the nation's waiting list of 85,000. Every day 17 people die because an organ couldn't be found — in time.

While these statistics from the United Network for Organ Sharing are alarming, few heed this wakeup call — despite pleas from government health agencies, churches and organizations like the network — and register to donate organs at their death or even during life.

Cynthia Merola is one of the few.

A member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Rutland, Vt., Merola underwent surgery to remove a kidney just two days before her 50th birthday in May 2002. She donated her kidney to someone she didn't know. And she did this despite the skepticism of family, friends and her doctors. She did it, she says, because "I know God called me to do this."

But it wasn't easy. She didn't pass the creatinine clearance test, which evaluates kidney function, at a level required in Vermont — even after repeated attempts. "I was angry with God," says Merola, a fourth-grade special-needs aide at Rutland Intermediate City School. "I know he called me to do this, and he couldn't just slam the door in my face."

'What if you die?'

Merola went to New York, to the Albany Medical Center where she was approved as a kidney donor. But, she says, she still faced the "What if ..." questions. Her donation to an anonymous recipient would be the first of that kind the hospital would perform.

"What if ... you die?" the center's transplant team asked. And they made sure she knew it was possible, Merola says. She told them and everyone else, including her husband, Jack, and son, Jason: "If you believed with all your heart that it was you who should do this, I would support you. And you should support me."

Although the skepticism of friends and family didn't faze her, Merola admits she wanted to hear a simple yes or no from her pastor, Sharon Hughes.

"Pastor Hughes was instrumental in helping her make that decision," Jack Merola says. But she didn't give a simple answer. Instead she told her, "God is calling you, Cynthia. Listen, listen to him and you will know what to do."

"Without her care and compassion," Cynthia Merola says, "I might not have done this."

Merola says she trusted God would find a suitable recipient for her kidney, but she was reluctant to see the person and requested to remain anonymous after the operation. "The recipient owes me nothing," she says. "I didn't need any attachment."

But several weeks after the surgery, Albany's staff forwarded notes to her from Jeanine Frydl, then 59, who thanked Merola for giving her life and joy to her family. Frydl began dialysis in Washington, D.C., for kidney disease in fall 2001. By winter 2002, a kidney transplant was her only hope of survival. But no family member, not her husband or any of their five children, could provide a kidney. Merola offered the perfect match — and in time.

After talking, the two women decided to meet. "I wanted to meet my miracle," Frydl says. "How do you thank someone for giving you life? It is God's work. Who else would have inspired her?"

A miracle? Merola says, "I'm just an ordinary person who did a good deed on one day. If I can get just one more person to [donate], then I've done my job."

Time ran out

Across the country in Phoenix, Ann Taylor had no Cynthia Merola, no "miracle." The member of All Saints Lutheran Church and high school English and drama teacher, who shared her considerable directing talent with church youth groups and summer arts programs, died just before Christmas 2002 waiting for a liver donor that never came.

Before Taylor was removed from a ventilator, she had been on a waiting list for just 48 hours. With liver failure, time can be extremely limited.

She had previously fought back from lengthy hospitalizations. "She emerged with a passion for advocacy," says Susan Sprowls, a pastor of All Saints. She had learned how hard it can be to navigate through the medical system and turned her attention to helping others find their way through it.

"Ann wasn't a person you wanted to fight," says Sprowls, who was at her side to the end. "Part of my way of processing Ann's death was to register as a bone-marrow donor."

One donor at a time

Helping solve the acute shortage of organs available for transplant and to ensure that the spiritual needs of the donor's family are met is the job of John Wilson, trauma chaplain at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, Ill. He is encouraged by new federal and state laws that require families of suitable donors be given the opportunity to approve of organ and tissue donation.

"The medical team here is aware of the condition of critical-care patients," he says. "They do brain-flow studies three to four days at which time they'll have clinical evidence of brain death."

Brain-dead patients will die upon removal from a ventilator. They have long been the primary source of major organ donation. In Illinois, once the family is informed, a representative of the state's organ retrieval organization, Gift of Hope, makes a direct request to the family.

In the time they have to make that decision, Wilson will be there to help them examine their faith issues, as well as reconstruct the spiritual values and intent of the deceased. It helps if they've made written provisions or signed a donor card, but they aren't binding.

"The rule for me is consistency in death with life," says Wilson, an American Baptist who has been at Advocate for 20 years. "What did they think of other people? Were they a giving person?" The honor and dignity of the deceased are prime considerations. Organ donation, Wilson points out, doesn't eliminate an open-casket funeral.

Donations, he says, come from more than 80 percent of the suitable brain-dead patients at Advocate. "Gunshot, car wreck, plane crash — [donating] is the only way [for many families] to make sense of a senseless event," he adds.

Wilson also stresses the need for other sources to increase the organ transplant supply. Hospitals are in the process of implementing policy for using what they can from donors without heartbeats. Animal (xeno) transplant study also is advancing. Living donors, like Cynthia Merola are rare — just over 6,800 in 2003 — but a most successful source.

ELCA: ‘An act of stewardship’

What does my church say? That's the question Wilson hears most often when a family is making an organ donation decision.

The United Network of Organ Sharing reports that all major religions approve of organ and tissue donation.

In April the ELCA Church Council approved a social policy resolution, The Donation of Organs, Tissue and Whole Blood .

The ELCA, it states: "[R]egards the donation of organs, tissue and whole blood as an act of stewardship and as an appropriate means for contributing to the health and well-being of other people."

Roger Willer, associate director for studies with the Division for Church in Society, who drafted the resolution, said: "Making people aware of the acute shortage and need for donation are major factors we wanted to address. Our God is the God of life. We are called on to do whatever we can so that life may flourish."

The American Medical Association and the ELCA agree that attempts must be made to increase the supply of organ donors, Willer says, but hold different moral views of the human body.

Among the AMA proposals, for example, is one to provide financial remuneration to donors. "That changes the nature of the whole process," Willer says. "A sheer utilitarian view of the body is not God's view."


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