Vi Beaty (left) says she is alive today because Heather Hannam donated a kidney. The two are members of St. Philip Benizi Church in Redland. (Courtesy Joanie Livermore)
Vi Beaty (left) says she is alive today because Heather Hannam donated a kidney. The two are members of St. Philip Benizi Church in Redland. (Courtesy Joanie Livermore)

Traveling through Lent, we note that Jesus Christ asks us in the Gospels not to worship him, but to follow him, and that he set an example of sacrificial love and healing the sick. Heather Hannam and Euvira (Vi) Beaty of St. Philip Benizi Church in Redland, near Oregon City, found an opportunity to follow him.

“How are you doing tonight?” Heather casually asked Vi after a church committee meeting one April evening in 2005. The women knew each other just slightly.

“Not so great,” Vi said. “I’ve found out I’m in kidney failure and I need a transplant. And my brother has already given a kidney to my other brother.”

Unspoken that night was the fact that Vi’s kidney failure, also known as end-stage kidney disease, is ultimately fatal. Every day 13-17 people in the U.S. die as they wait for a kidney transplant. Many people in the general population, including readers of the Catholic Sentinel, are registered to donate their organs upon their own deaths. But only 3 in 1,000 people die in such a way that their organs can be used for transplants.

Heather Hannum, a physical therapist 53 years old at the time, looked Vi in the eye that April evening in their church and said, “If I’m a match, I’ll do it. I will give you my kidney.” A leader of the St. Benizi email prayer chain, Heather never wavered from the promise she made to Vi that night in church.

It’s hard to overstate the stress Vi was under. “This was six weeks after my mother died, two weeks after my mother in law died. Hard year. I’d just started a new job. Kidney failure meant I was looking at loss of job and loss of income. I have polycystic kidney disease, which is genetic. So my kidneys were being overtaken by cysts, leaving little working kidney tissue. I couldn’t breathe deeply. I looked like I was pregnant, because kidneys are supposed to weigh 1-1 ½ pounds and mine weighed five to six pounds.”

Vi, unlike many kidney patients, never used dialysis. Dialysis treatment can act as a temporary kidney, but patients die an average of 5-7 years after starting it. That wait-list for deceased kidney donations is years long. Live kidney donations can happen quickly, and have higher success rates. Most living kidney donors are family members of the person needing a kidney. But that avenue was closed to Vi.

Heather’s husband Gary was a bit unnerved at first by the idea of his wife giving away a kidney. Soon, though, he became supportive. Extensive evaluation was Heather’s next step. Not just blood types but antigens have to be compatible. Organ donation in the U.S. is strictly voluntary, with no emotional coercion or financial payment allowed. Transplant costs for both donor and recipient are paid by the recipient’s health care provider.

“My psychological evaluation said I’m very independent,” Heather states. “They were concerned I wouldn’t accept help, especially in the recovery process of four to six weeks. But my daughter vouched that I would. And I decided early on to accept anything that anybody offered. I’d let people be a part of the donation. You gift them back by receiving their help.”

The surgery as originally scheduled got cancelled at the last minute because Vi’s blood was found to be “eating” Heather’s blood. This was the hardest part of the ordeal. “Really God, you put us through all this, just to call it off?” Heather said.

The women then looked at a possible paired donation, in which Heather would give to a different recipient, while a different donor would give to Vi. However, a few months later, a new test found the blood incompatibilities had resolved themselves. “That only happens in 1% of those instances,” Vi reports. “We were on a worldwide prayer chain,” she adds. And the women and their families prayed together before the surgery.

How did Vi feel after the transplant surgery? “Great! I felt like someone plugged me into a wall socket. All that tiredness was gone. Energy flowed through me. The kidney Heather gave me was working before the doctor even finished sewing me up.”

Heather, as expected, did not feel great after the surgery. She had transferred some of her health and life-force to Vi, temporarily. Healing took a number of weeks, and a mysterious leg pain persisted for a year, though she now feels fine. Would she do it over again? “Absolutely.”

What about the sticky issue of indebtedness? Heather headed this off at the pass. “I wrote and signed a document before the transplant that said I was giving my kidney to Vi with no strings attached. She’d owe me nothing, and my kids could not come after the kidney in the future -- they’d have to give kidneys to each other. We had fun with it, got it notarized and everything. It was partly tongue in cheek, but it was also serious.”

Heather addresses the potential sin of pride: “People at church would cry and hug me as they were talking with me, they were so moved by the fact I was donating a kidney to Vi. But the Holy Spirit protected me from braggadocio. People overestimate the altruism part – I got a lot out of doing it.”

Vi sees it slightly differently. “Giving a kidney is a selfless act, I don’t care what anyone says. Heather’s kidney saved my life. It might have also saved my dad’s life, indirectly, since he’s so close to me. I believe we’re born with two kidneys so we have one to spare, that we can share if we choose. God made our bodies phenomenally. It’s all part of a bigger plan.”

To learn more about being a live kidney donor, see Oregon Health Sciences University Kidney Transplant program or Legacy Health Kidney Transplant Services.

Wiley is a freelance writer who lives in Southeast Portland.