Aleah Marsden: Giving Until It Hurts

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The nurse hands my husband a bag for personal belongings and a bundle that includes a hospital gown, nonskid socks, and a heavy blanket. As Mike undresses, the weightiness of the moment is almost palpable. I do not allow myself to think of our four kids still sleeping right now at my parents’ house, an hour away from us here in the University of California, San Francisco hospital surgical wing. I push back at all the what-ifs that punctuate my thoughts like the beloved freckles that dapple my husband’s face. There is no doubt in my mind that we are meant to be here, but outcomes are never assured, and I tend toward worst-case scenario thinking.

A year ago, this journey had started off with a car ride conversation on the way to a neighbor’s wedding. “What would you think if I donated a kidney?” he asked casually.

My internal reaction: What if you die?! Who would you donate to, anyway? What if one of our four young kids or our relatives needs a transplant someday? What if I do? What if you get kidney disease or get in a car accident and injure the only kidney you have left? What are you thinking?!

My audible reply: “Why would you want to do that?”

It turned out Mike had read a magazine article and, not long after, happened upon a podcast on the possible domino effect of altruistic kidney donation. He thought it would be a nice thing to do. A youth group student of his had received a donation from his brother and it had gone well. Maybe there was someone out there who could benefit from his “extra” kidney as, medically speaking, a person only needs one.

I didn’t leave that conversation convinced, but his earnest sense of calling was enough for us to research next steps. The statistics were astounding: According to the National Kidney Foundation, every 14 minutes a new name is added to the kidney transplant waiting list in the United States—over 3,000 each month. At any given time more than 70,000 active patients are awaiting transplants, and on average every day 13 people die waiting for one.

Elective donation surgery has inherent costs and dangers. Over the course of months, my husband underwent extensive physical and psychological screening. Mike attended appointments with transplant program donor advocates where the improbable but real risk related to organ donation was explained at length. We signed legal documents and drafted end-of-life wishes in case of the worst. He talked to the human resources department at work and learned he would qualify for short-term disability with full pay during the recommended eight weeks he’d need to recover.

But when it came time to schedule a date for his altruistic donation—he did not have a specific recipient but was donating into “the system”—I got cold feet. I realized that I was supporting Mike in theory, all the while assuming at some point he would be denied. I had imagined, for example, that donors needed to be in peak physical condition. Surely my husband’s diet, conspicuously lacking in anything green, would have shut the door by now.

While I had been moved by the scale of the need, I had to confront the truth in my own heart: This felt too costly an act for a stranger.

Out of Our Abundance

Modern science and medicine, coupled with our bent toward rationalism, lead us to view our organs mostly through an anatomical-physiological lens. In the ancient world, though, kidneys were a revered part of the body endowed with mythological and metaphorical importance.

In Egypt, the kidneys and heart were the only organs left inside a mummy during the embalming process. The ancient Israelites understood the kidneys as being the seat of the human soul, a place of complex inner emotions tied to desire and discernment. The Talmud refers to them in much the same way that we would picture an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other; one kidney was believed to be full of good advice and the other bad.

We might be surprised by how often the word for kidneys is used in the original text of the Old Testament. For example, in Psalm 139:13 when the psalmist credits God with creating his “inmost being” while still in his mother’s womb, the literal translation for “inmost being” is “kidneys.” It’s also translated as “soul,” “secret thoughts,” “innermost,” and even “heart,” since modern readers better understand the metaphorical gist of that organ. However, an Israelite would have connected the heart to the center of reason, and the kidneys would have mostly held what today we consider to be the symbolic role of the heart.

But when I turned to Scripture to deal with my husband’s desire to donate—and my own hesitations—there was much more to grapple with than just the significance of this particular organ. In the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist exhorted a gathered crowd to “bear good fruits in keeping with repentance.” It was not enough for the people of Israel to claim the heritage of Abraham; the people needed to demonstrate that they belonged to God through their actions. When the people asked John how to do this, he responded, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” By their generosity they would be known as God’s people.

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Source: Christianity Today