Over five years ago my good friend Mark Koenig received one of my kidneys. After much delay here is something of a nice account of our journey together. We hope that perhaps it can be published somewhere so others can know how blessed it is to give and receive an organ. Enjoy!
One Donation Leads to Another
by Kristian Bjornstad and Mark Koenig
One evening in February, 2008, after coming home from work building firetrucks, Mark Koenig turned on the evening news. Headlining the news was the report of an extensive fire in Scranton, PA which destroyed an apartment building and left 13 individuals and families out of a home. Mark lives in the small township of Jefferson Township, PA, about 15 minutes outside of Scranton along with his wife Kim. Thankfully no one was seriously injured in the fire, but the neighboring Peace Lutheran Church was working hard to collect household items for the fire victims. It was reported they would even be willing to come and pick up donations.
This news about a Lutheran church working so hard to help perked Mark’s interest. Since moving to the community from New Jersey several years previously, he had failed to find a church home. It had always bothered him because he had been a life long Lutheran. It was also a fact that he needed to get rid of good furniture that had started cluttering his home. He talked with Kim and called the number on the screen.
Pastor Kris Bjornstad picked up the phone and was happy to arrange a pickup at the house for the next day. It was a large donation and Mark kept piling the load higher with everything he could think of which might be good for a new apartment. Pastor Bjornstad had to make an extra trip to transport everything. A couple weeks later Mark was in church and happy to have found a spiritual home. He had been through a lot, knowing how God had saved his life more than once in various situations – and now he knew he was going to need the Lord’s help again! The doctors had just told him that a hereditary kidney disease was setting in and he would have to be on dialysis very soon. It felt good for him to be in church again and worshipping his Lord and Savior.
It was just a few weeks after his donation and coming to Peace Lutheran that he started life on dialysis. Instead of having to go to the hospital for dialysis three days a week for treatments, he decided to try a new technique of “home dialysis” where he had a machine at home where he could be more comfortable. There were drawbacks, of course, including the fact that you had to do dialysis five days a week for 2-3 hours a day instead of three days a week for 4-5 hours at the dialysis center. But the main advantage was that he could continue to work during the day and do his dialysis during the evenings. Even though it was nice having dialysis at home, the five days a week grind was extremely limiting on his life. Treatments never felt good and took a constant toll on his body. Because dialysis is only a short term treatment the doctors advised Mark to register with the National Kidney Transplant list.
Having Polysistic Kidney Disease (PKD) is not easy to deal with. Beyond the physical issues of being sick constantly, it takes a large toll emotionally and spiritually. Mark struggled with questions about life and death and the purposes that God still had for him. It is hard to think and live positively with the constant dependency on a machine for daily existence. As willing as she was to do anything for her husband, Kim also suffered immense amounts of stress trying to take care of her husband while working a full time job. It was her task to prepare the dialysis machine, insert the needles, and make sure that everything was working correctly for her husband.
The weeks, months and years on the transplant list were grueling. Mark has an O+ blood type, the rarest and most difficult type to match. After three years of home dialysis with no calls from the Kidney Transplant list, Mark’s cousin volunteered to see if she was compatible for a transplant. Although she was a match to Mark’s blood type, she was not able to be a donor because of a blood clotting issue. Through this all, Mark was intent on trusting the Lord to help him in his trials. He kept a positive attitude and was always glad for the many prayers his family, friends, and the members of Peace Lutheran Church offered up to God for him.
PASTOR BJORNSTAD’S JOURNEY TOWARDS BEING A DONOR
It is often said: “Be careful what you pray for. You might get it!” We say that usually in reference to our prayers for ourselves. But does it not also happen in our prayers for others? Prayer is a communication with The Lord – and it should be two way. We need to be listening! Often times the answer that God is giving to a particular prayer request for someone else is “I am calling you to do my will and be my agent of mercy for that person!”
So it was with Pastor Bjornstad and his prayers for Mark. Week after week Mark would say that nothing had come of his search for a transplant. No calls… Possibilities dashed… Then one day Mark came with the news that he was enlisting the help of doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. They had indicated that he might be a candidate for a new type of kidney transplant where donors do not have to have matching blood types. Now anyone would be a possible donor, and pretty soon the answer to his prayers for Mark became clear. Previously it was easy to say, “I don’t have the same blood type as Mark so I can’t make a donation”. But that was not the case anymore. Pastor Bjornstad became convinced that God was challenging him to put his faith on the line and give up a lot more than he was used to for someone else.
One night he went upstairs and asked his wife Monica what she thought of a kidney donation to Mark. She was not partial to adventure and risk-taking, so he was surprised and pleased when she agreed to supporting the pursuit!
And so began the adventure of a lifetime with so many rewards.
THE PREPARATIONS FOR AN INCOMPATIBLE KIDNEY TRANSPLANT
The screening process for Pastor Bjornstad was initiated and completed. It involved one trip to Baltimore and a series of tests, none of them burdensome or invasive. The determination was made that his kidney and his general physical and mental health was satisfactory. The decision was made to set a date for surgery and initiate the preparations needed for Mark to receive his new kidney. These preparations were going to be significant, and there was no turning back at that point!
Mark reported to Johns Hopkins Hospital three weeks prior to the scheduled surgery to undergo all the necessary treatments to prepare his body for the incompatible kidney. These treatments consisted of two processes. The first took the blood from his body, filtered it through a special system that removed impurities his kidneys could not. After that process was complete a second treatment commenced the same day for the purpose of removing his immune system and replacing it with the donor’s immune system (which had been cultured from Pastor Bjornstad’s blood work). These treatments were four days a week for three weeks while at the same time they juggled his regular dialysis treatments. This put increased strain on Mark’s body and would make him constantly sick. He was cared for by his best friend from high school, who lived outside of Baltimore. Jay and his wife Sarah Cronk provided transportation and housing during and after this whole process. Without their help this would have not been possible.
The day before the surgery, Mark’s mother, his two sisters, along with his brother, his wife and son, arrived to offer support. Kim had been coming down on weekends but now had taken vacation time to be there the week of the surgery. The doctors had been working hard to adjust certain blood level numbers in the days before surgery. The day before the surgery the numbers had not been to their satisfaction and doctors ordered extra last minute treatments to get the blood levels correct. It was an exceedingly difficult time, but thankfully, everything came together the morning of surgery. The lab tests came back with good numbers and the go-ahead was given. It was a great relief for all involved.
Pastor Bjornstad was unaware of all of these difficulties with Mark’s surgery prep. Back in Scranton, he was trying his best to avoid thinking too much about the surgery. In the run-up to the last day, it had always been a matter of “surgery is a ways down the road…” But the night before the surgery came it no longer “it is a ways down the road…” It was tomorrow! What was he going to do now? There was only one thing to keep saying: “Trust the Lord.”
Pastor Bjornstad woke up at 3am after a fitful sleep, two members of the congregation were waiting outside his door to take him to Baltimore. It was difficult because no one knew whether they should talk about the surgery, or if a discussion about the weather was better. It was a very long four hour trip! Arriving safely in Baltimore, Cy and Mike helped bring in Pastor Bjornstad’s suitcase and made sure he was through the registration process and settled in the hospital room before they said their goodbyes and headed back to Scranton.
DIFFICULTIES AND DOUBTS
Up to now, Mark had always displayed an upbeat attitude, trying not to show too much anxiety over the impending surgery. It was only hours before the surgery when he started to show true emotions regarding the severity of the surgery. He took comfort in the love and encouragement of his family.
At this point, it needs to also be said that Pastor Bjornstad’s outlook had certainly clouded. He had imagined and prepared himself for the probability that he would not feel so charitable at this moment before surgery. His expectations were correct. He couldn’t stop saying to himself: “Is this REALLY what I want to do? Perhaps I should just go home right now. I don’t really have to do this.” Having all these doubts going through his mind, he called a nurse and asked if he could see Mark. Arrangements were made and he was brought to Mark’s room. Also present in the room with Mark was his mother, his sister and his wife Kim. Pastor Bjornstad will always remember how there was instant peace in his heart as Mark’s mother expressed how much it meant to her that her son was going to receive a new kidney. There was no question now. It was all truly a blessing to be able to share what God had given in abundance. A prayer and hugs were shared by all. The final preparations for surgery commenced with much joy and confidence. Also giving him much comfort was a hand-made blanket sewn by the Peace Lutheran Church Parish Nurse with this prayer on it:
You are the Light of the world.
We lift up to you Pastor Kris, our Shepherd, who teaches us about your Light and helps us to live in Your Light.
Please bless him and keep him in your care, and be in the hands and labors of all who care for him. Amen.
THE BLESSINGS REALIZED
Mark woke up from surgery on the day of his 48th birthday and was glad to see his family members and friends with the news from his doctors that everything went very well. But he knew that there would be struggles ahead. The risk of rejection is higher with a non-compatible kidney transplant. After a two week stay in the hospital Mark was released to stay at his friend’s house and for the next two months while he had to make frequent returns to the hospital for check-ups. Finally the doctors were satisfied with his kidney function and he was released to return home to Scranton the day before Thanksgiving to continue his recovery under the auspices of local Scranton doctors. Even as joyous as that return home was, dangers had not passed completely. After six months tests came back indicating that the kidney was experiencing rejection and Mark had to go to Baltimore again for special treatments. The rejection was controlled, and since then there has not been another incident.
Pastor Bjornstad’s recovery from surgery was much easier. After some minor setbacks in recovery, he was back home five days later with his wife and four daughters. Within six weeks he was back to his regular work schedule, and it wasn’t too much longer that all physical effects from his grand adventure of faith disappeared, except that his one remaining kidney actually grew in size to help compensate for the one missing! The doctors expect that even with one kidney functioning normally, he should not expect any problems with kidney function unless he lives well into his nineties. That chance is a small price to pay for many years of full life for Mark.
BEING BORN AGAIN – A THIRD TIME!
Mark’s faith in God, the comfort of his church family, along with his wonderful family and friends, made this journey a growing personal experience. The freedom and new life that his new kidney gave him was like being literally born again. As a Christian he believes that he was born into this world at first, then born into the family of God in baptism, and now he has been given even another life! He still has to live with certain health issues. The kidney disease destroyed his Pancreas and his diabetes needs to be controlled. Of course he must take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. But compared with the previous dread of living at the edge of life and death, he is exceedingly blessed, and he thanks the Lord every day. Mark’s new kidney has given over five years of good service and the doctors are hoping for a good fifteen or maybe twenty years before the strain of living in a body not its own will take its toll. At that point he will be having to look for another donor unless the miracles of God through modern medicine find another way to health.
CONSIDER BEING A LIVING DONOR
Mark will most likely need a second kidney in the future, but many thousands of others are still desperately waiting for their first kidney transplant. Becoming a donor is a once in a lifetime opportunity to participate in God’s miracles of healing. It is easy to make your body eligible for donation after you die, but there are great blessings in being a living donor. Firstly, live donation organs are usually in much better health and last longer than organs donated after death. The second blessing is that the donor gets to know and enjoy the fruits of the donation. It is such a joy for Pastor Bjornstad to know Mark as a friend and see him in the pew and be encouraged by his faith and work in the congregation. He can see, demonstrated in real life, that scripture is true and that it is indeed better to give than to receive. We encourage everyone who reads this story to consider being a donor. It is true that not everyone can be a donor because of various health and life circumstances, but for many, young and old, there are opportunities to become a living donor. Pray to the Lord for his guidance and courage in becoming a donor.
As we know in the life of Christ, and even as we can see in the simple act of giving away furniture to families in need, one donation leads to another!
You can find out more about living donations today by going to www.donatelife.net. You can find out more about incompatible blood donations at www.hopkinsmedicine.org/transplant/programs/kidney/incompatible/