What It’s Really Like to Give Away a Kidney

Read about this author's spiritual experience of donating a kidney to his neighbor.
I know a guy, Luke, who donated his kidney to a neighbor. He had some interesting things to say about giving part of his body to someone else so they can live. It seemed like a good story to learn something about generosity, so I asked him to talk about it.

Your kidneys filter your blood. Everyone has two kidneys, but one is enough. So if someone’s kidneys are failing, doctors can take one from a healthy person and put it in a sick person and both can walk around with one kidney filtering their blood no problem.

Here’s the deal if you need a new kidney: you want to get as many people as you can find to enter the screening process to donate one. There are many disqualifying conditions, and you’re hoping that someone among your friends or family can get through. Luke’s neighbor stopped him in the driveway one day and they got to talking. “I told him to let me know if I can help,” Luke said.

Saying ‘yes’

Luke entered the screening process and, over the course of months, ended up being the best candidate to emerge. Here’s how he described the experience:

At the end of my life, when I look back, I’m certain I’ll think this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. All I did was say “yes.” The rest just unfolded — it was like stepping into a new world with that one word.

I had a sense of handing over my body — being a part of a process that brings new life. I didn’t do anything. There was none of me in this. Nothing I did made it happen. I was used as an instrument for God to do something awesome. It all adds up to much more than I could have offered.

I tend to value being productive. I don’t have a lot of gifts, but I get a lot of sh*t done. I can crank out a ton of work. It’s a danger to take too much pride in that, thinking it’s all up to me, or I can take credit for it.

At the end of my life, I’ll take pride in something that had nothing to do with me. It changes your perception of yourself and where you fit into the providence.

And I had a zillion chances to back out. It was a process that took months, and at every turn, I could have said no. The day before the surgery, they took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes and said, “There is no medical benefit to this surgery.” Everything was at a stop until I said “yes.” Then it could happen.

It all hinged on one word. That was the only part I played in it. There is so much potential for goodness, but God is not going to force it until I said, “yes.”

Luke said “yes” over and over — from the driveway conversation when he accepted the invitation to join the list of potential donors to the final consent form before being put under anesthetic for surgery. Even the discomfort of recovery was a “yes,” in a way. The threads from each “yes” braided together into one, fundamental “yes” that changed two lives.

God isn’t going to force His way into our lives. I think we often want to say “yes” in a fundamental way to God, but don’t know how. And in our search, we overlook the opportunities to say “yes” in smaller ways. But there is no big, fat “yes” without the smaller ones. Each small “yes” opens a door, and if we open enough, we soon realize that we’re not reaching for God — we’re cooperating with Him.

Gifts of thanks

Donating a kidney might make you think of yourself as a gift-giver, but the experience had the opposite effect on Luke — it made him think more about what he’s been given:

It helped me see health as a gift. I try to stay healthy, but a lot of my health is due to factors beyond my control. I see lots of people in this town get sick through no fault of their own.

Like any gift God gives us, we’re supposed to do something with it. I was blessed with good health, and maybe this is why. Maybe this gift is supposed to pay benefits. In a very particular way, God can use the gifts He has given me — He wants those gifts returned with interest.

For a few weeks after the procedure, Luke said that you “feel the hole.” The place where one kidney was is now empty, he said, and you feel your insides readjusting — it’s not painful, but you’re aware that part of you is missing from where it used to be.

But now, whenever he sees his neighbor, Luke knows that part of him lives inside this other guy. Neither are gushy, and Luke talks about this connection in a no-nonsense way: “There’s an unspoken thing between us,” he says.

Generosity works like that, doesn’t it? Giving something costs us — it could be money or time or effort or attention — but even if it hurts, it’s not painful. And whatever we offer lives inside others, usually in hidden ways.

We know this is true because we’ve received gifts — benefactors enrich the communities we live in, teachers and coaches do their best to cultivate knowledge and virtue in us, families root us in love, friends are shade and water on a long journey. All these gifts live inside us.

We acknowledge what others have given to us far less than we should, partly because a proper thanks would require us to bring our lives to a screeching halt. We’d have to travel miles on our knees to their doorsteps, where we would bow and sing hymns and prepare lavish food, but even then, we’d leave abashed that we’d not done enough.

So our gratitude is best expressed when we give something back — we know this, don’t we? We have this impulse to reach outside our shells, beyond whatever we need to survive and advance our own interests. Even if it’s dim and faint, we hear a persistent knocking from other people out there — out beyond us — whose lives would be better if we shared what we have. We know this, because we are knocking, too.

What we offer might be less corporeal and tangible than a kidney, but it’s no less real. When we give, we feel the hole, but we also see how our gifts walk around inside other people, helping them live. And when things readjust inside us, they grow together stronger than before.
Grotto quote graphic about donating a kidney: "Gratitude is best expressed when we give something back."

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