Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Kidney Donor Delivers a Setback to Live Organ Donation

I am a live kidney donor. That’s a fact I don’t parade around on my sleeve except for times like these when the credibility of live organ donation is on the line. We hear lots of beautiful, affirming stories of living donors giving a kidney or part of another organ and the life-changing, life-saving effects of that gift for their recipients. But all it takes is a widely publicized story of a donation going wrong to stamp a black eye on an evolving but fragile medical procedure– fragile because there are far more needs for organ transplants than available donors.

Debbie Stevens- the donor

This week, we heard the story of a 47-year-old woman named Debbie Stevens who donated a kidney to her boss, 61-year-old Jackie Brucia. Debbie Stevens has now gone public alleging that her boss and kidney recipient, hired her, received the kidney, terribly mistreated her, and fired her. Stevens stated, “I decided to become a kidney donor to my boss, and she took my heart… I feel very betrayed. This has been a very hurtful and horrible experience for me. She just took this gift and put it on the ground and kicked it.” Now, after filing a suit against Ms. Brucia, she’s demanding her kidney to be returned.

Jackie Brucia- the recipient

There are a lot of other extenuating details we know and lot more we don’t know. I’m not going to get into the messy she said/she said soap opera. You can read the story for yourself, but from what I gather of Debbie Stevens’ own story read through my own experience as a donor, I seriously doubt the substance of many of her claims. The circumstances leading up to the actual kidney donation looked legitimate. There didn’t appear to be any kind of set-up or manipulation. I also question the validity and helpfulness of  her post-donation claims.

Now, Debbie Stevens did suffer some post-surgical complications, and that happens. (I suffered some, too that lengthened my recovery time, rendering my case “non-textbook”.) But after that, she alleges that Jackie Brucia began to harangue her for taking too much time off and vying for special treatment as Stevens coped with her post-surgical complications. Eventually, Stevens was re-located to another office as a demotion. After she made a public stink over her treatment and filed a lawsuit, she was fired.

Stevens, a single mother of two, now claims financial ruin from all the post-surgical medical treatments and lost income. She claims psychological trauma as a result of the donation, and that her life is ruined since no insurance company will pick a kidney donor once her COBRA expires. Meanwhile, Stevens and the press have painted Jackie Brucia as a hot-tempered, manipulative, rich company executive who used and abused a gracious, poor single mother of two kids.

Oh brother… Typing out all that drama just now left me feeling like a daytime soap screenwriter!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Jackie Brucia is no innocent saint and that there is some truth to her treatment of Stevens. And of course, we only know what Stevens has shared and how the press has told the story.

But as a donor, I felt compelled to point out some egregious red flags in Stevens’ story and allegations which people unfamiliar to the process might not see.

First, the transplant recipient’s medical insurance covers all of the donor’s medical costs related to the transplant, before and after surgery. All of my screening tests were 100% covered. The surgery and after-care has been 100% covered. When I was re-hospitalized after surgery, the hospitalization, tests, and follow-up tests and visits were all 100% covered. This usually lasts up to two years post-surgery. This is not Good Samaritan philanthropy on the part of insurance companies. As you can imagine, it’s purely about money. It costs a lot less to fully finance a transplant than years of dialysis treatments. Bottom line, unless Stevens is exaggerating her condition or not properly advocating for herself, she should not be in financial ruin from ensuing medical costs related to being a donor.

Second, insurance companies don’t typically deny coverage to organ donors. Not only that, but as established by the Affordable Care Act, a pre-existing condition is no longer a barrier to coverage. That’s one aspect of the new health care law I firmly agree with.

Third, I question the amount of recovery time and accommodations Stevens claimed she needed. Even with complications, I was back to work within three weeks. Stevens was given four. That’s plenty of time. And if she needed more recovery time or accommodations, she could have easily gotten a prescription from her surgeon. That would have cleared the air, especially with her recipient boss, for crying out loud. Chances are that through the process Brucia would have even known and  interacted with Stevens’ surgeon.

Recipients, on the other hand, do often require more recovery time than donors. That is especially the case today with minimally invasive surgical techniques to remove the donor’s kidney. Surgeons have even perfected a single-incision procedure through the donor’s naval! Amazing stuff… So Stevens’ implication that she was forced back to work while her still recovering, pampered boss reamed her out from the comforts of her home looks to be little more than an emotional ploy.

Lastly, something obviously went wrong while preparing and evaluating these two women for the relational after-affects of the donation.

Back to my story… I’m a pastor, and I donated a kidney to one of my parishioners. Live organ donation is emotional enough, but in a potentially awkward situation like this one, it could have been even more so.

Part of the evaluation process was weighing the effects of being a donor on my parishioner recipient, on our unique relationship, how this might affect the church, and how this would affect our families, especially within the church. As a part of my evaluation to be a donor, a social worker from our kidney donation program asked me some very pointed questions, “What are your motives? Do you expect to gain anything from being a donor? How would you react if there was a falling out between you and your recipient? How would you react if the surgery is not successful?” These were tough questions to wrestle through, and if my answers were any less than genuine, my donor application would have been flatly denied. I also had to work very carefully with our church’s leadership and my denominational supervisor to get their support, to discern the best way to share what was happening with the rest of our church, and to work up a recovery plan.

It’s clear from the Debbie Stevens and Jackie Brucia story that something went wrong with this evaluation and preparation process. Perhaps everyone involved was not as thorough or truthful as they needed to be. Maybe the donation program they worked through fell down on the job.

In any case, donation does significantly change the relationship between donor and recipient. It certainly brought my recipient and me and our families much closer. But we also had to figure out healthy, meaningful ways for us to express “thank you” and “you’re welcome” for an unusual, life-altering gift. That creates some discomfort and stress, and I think that stress contributed to the messiness between Stevens and Brucia. I can imagine Stevens feeling that she was owed gratitude and respect from her boss and Brucia struggling over how to be both a thankful recipient and an unbiased supervisor. No doubt those uneasy dynamics came to play.

Yet no matter the extenuating facts, Debbie Stevens’ public behavior since losing her job has cast live organ donation in a dark shadow. She may very well have a case, but why go so public with it, crying out things that are clearly out of line and false? The public sees this story and could very well walk away thinking, If that’s what can happen after donating a kidney, no thank you! Meanwhile, the list of people waiting on the kidney transplant list still grows.

Being a kidney donor is a huge decision, granted, but it is a truly viable, inexpressibly rewarding thing that any healthy person can do. How often are we given an opportunity to give something of ourselves that saves another person’s life? Yes, I live with one kidney now, but I’m just as healthy now as ever. Actually, the process forced me to lose weight and take better care of myself, so I’m healthier now before. My life expectancy has not diminished. I live everyday unaware that anything is different with my body. Aside from avoiding certain medications and avoiding high impact activities, my lifestyle is no different. My kidney donation took place January of last year. That November I ran a 5K race and beat all my previous times.

My body lives just fine with one kidney. And my recipient’s quality of life and life-expectancy has dramatically improved. Her transformation has been a humbling, stunning thing to see.

I really do pray and hope that everything works out as it should for both Stevens and Brucia. Something went terribly wrong that needs to be corrected. But in no way does a tragedy like this paint an accurate or fair portrait of live organ donation.

From one donor to another, Debbie Stevens owes it to everyone on a transplant list and to all potential donors to publicly uphold the worthiness and viability of live organ donation.

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How a Victim of Racism Became a Perpetrator

It was Saturday afternoon, and I came into the church office for several hours of work on a tight schedule. After being off for a week following Easter, I felt the pressure of all this work to be done. Needless to say, unscheduled phone calls or visits were not at all on my radar screen. But Murphy decided to intervene. Just as I was about to walk into the church office, someone knocked on the front door. Ah, shoot… I was caught! I didn’t know her, and I’ve been around here long enough to know that this was most likely someone coming to the church for help. Ugh…

Reluctantly I answered the door, and a woman, a middle-aged African American woman, who looked somewhat familiar to me asked to come in because she needed to talk. What was I going to do? Helping people is my business after all, but lately, I’ve also been tempering my personal/professional boundaries, too. I can’t let every random thing that pops up derail essential things, in this case getting ready for a Sunday morning.

I apologized to the woman and told her that I was very busy at the moment. She persisted, so I offered to set up an appointment to come in and talk. She declined that offer and then went on to trash me.

“Oh wait, I remember you,” she said. “I came by here before, and you were nasty.” Then I remembered why she looked familiar. “I remember your predecessor,” she said. “He was nice, but my, how things change. You’re just nasty.”

Once again, I offered to set up an appointment.

That was followed by, “You know what, I think I’m going to call Bishop Schol.” That’s my bishop. So I told her that when she calls, make sure to tell him that I offered an appointment.

To that, she said, “No, you’re just nasty. I can tell you don’t like black people.” Ouch. At that, I closed the conversation.

She could have said just about anything else, and it would have rolled right off of me. But a racist… Like a hot knife through butter, that accusation seared right through any thick skin I thought I had. I live in a highly multicultural, multiracial area. I love it! I am so happily blessed to pastor a multiracial, multicultural congregation. My leadership team and staff are purposefully diverse, and I still don’t think we’re nearly diverse enough.

So to be called a racist… I could call myself any number of unpleasant things or allow other people to label as they will, fairly or not. But to be accused of racism, bigotry, exclusiveness– that is a serious charge that carries hundreds of years of  historically heavy, painful weight. Her charge felt like Lex Luthor throwing a chain of kryponite around Superman’s neck. I’m no Superman, but I did feel crumbled down by the paralyzing weight of that single charge: you’re a white racist.

This is particularly wounding for me because I do come out of a family and community environment where racism was strongly present. My father’s family hails from Virginia. Racial stereotypes towards African Americans with an easy use of the n-word were the norm, rarely questioned. My grandfather Owens and his fathers harbored strong racism, and my maternal grandparents who came from Kansas had some racial attitudes, partly generational, partly regionally based. I grew up in the central and southern parts of Anne Arundel County where racial segregation is still culturally and geographically in force. I had friends who loved to tell racial jokes, and operated under typical white attitudes towards black people.

All of that did fundamentally shape me. How could it not? Divorcing myself from those attitudes came from an intentional process of getting to know and befriending people whom I had only understood through the lens of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Confronting my own ignorance and racial attitudes was a painful process, and sometimes it still is. I have had to own up to the racism I inherited and continually unearth and discard layers of ignorance and scorn when that twin-headed dragon rears its ugly head.

There’s no doubt my transformation continues. For example, if one of my daughters comes home with an African American boyfriend, I admit  there would probably be a struggle to work through my initial knee-jerk reaction: wishing somehow she had chosen someone of her own race. This would require one more step away from my inherited racism. (Of course, matters aren’t helped by the whole boyfriend ordeal, which is always hardest on fathers!)

But clearly, the sin and disease of racism has a way of infecting everyone, perpetrators and victims.

There’s no doubt the woman I encountered had been victimized and wounded by racist attitudes and behaviors in the past. Certainly her family, friends, and neighbors share the same experience, too. Minority people groups have lived it, can sense even the slightest aroma of it, and come to expect that it will happen again. I simply can’t imagine those deeply ingrained wounds and dread which many carry for simply having a certain skin color and hailing from a particular ethnicity and social class.

Wounded victims pose a high risk of becoming perpetrators. People give out what they’ve been given. If you’re hated enough by a group of people, chances are, out of self-defense, you’ll hate them back. If you’re singled out and treated with fear, suspicion, and scorn by a people who don’t know you and whom you don’t know, it’s all the more likely you’re going to return the favor with your own brand of fear, suspicion, and scorn.

Racism, like so many other forms of abuse, is a vicious cycle.

Take the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. This story has already been discussed ad nauseum, and when these things happen, I rarely add to the punditry. So much has already been said to not miss my 2-cent opinion. But that last sentence of mine makes the point. So much has been said by all the usual voices, and I have found little of to be helpful.

After George Zimmerman, whose race and ethnicity are sketchy at best, gunned down Trayvon Martin, my first though was, “How absolutely terrible for a teen to lose his life like that.” But then after the killing began to be labelled a murder with charges of racism and racial stereotyping coming to question, my next thought was, “Oh no… Here we go again.”

Too much is assumed that isn’t clearly known. People raise the serious charge of racism, met with counter-complaints of racism or using this tragedy for dubious motives. Meanwhile, we’re still sorting out the actual, unknown facts of what happened. Who knows, other than George Zimmerman and God, what really motivated him to gun down Trayvon Martin? It was clearly fear, but his fear of what? Don’t answer that too quickly. Fear smiles at a quick answer.

Actually, Trayvon Martin’s parents have offered the most helpful reaction to the killing of their son. This grieving family simply wanted an arrest and a prosecution. They got that, and rightly so. Now they want a peaceful resolution and justice to be done. I’m praying for that, as I have been. And I’m praying for myself and other leaders to do the right thing in moving those we lead through this tragedy that has taken a young man’s life and has ripped open deep scars for many more. A peaceful resolution, hoped for by Martin’s family, is the best thing I can aspire to work for, too.

Well, I said I wasn’t going to add to the punditry on Trayvon Martin’s death, but I guess I couldn’t resist offering some “punditry on the punditry” illustrating the ongoing disease of racism and racial tension– victims who beget perpetrators who beget victims who beget perpetrators.

After being labeled a racist, myself now wounded by racism, I had to stop myself from being the wounded victim who rails against “all those angry, hateful black people who refuse to let go of the past.” Isn’t that also an ill-informed racial stereotype, racism just as ignorant and destructive as my visitor’s ill-informed assumption about me? God help us all.

Will we choose to counter racism with new racism, or will we do the hard work of being a peacemaker who bridges divides between people? The later is hard work and few choose it, but according to Jesus, being a peacemaker has an awesome reward attached to it (Matthew 5:9). We get a new label beyond black or white: children of God.

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