2002 Graduate Offers the Gift of Life

March 19, 2015

New Kidney

Tears fill Nick VanderWal’s eyes as he talks of the new kidney he recently received from Rev. Zachary Olson ('02), his pastor at East Leonard Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“I have received this gift with so much gratitude,” says VanderWal, a retired social worker, his voice breaking with emotion as he sits at his kitchen table with Olson.

Paging through his Bible, he adds, “This gift reflects God’s love in action. It reminds me of what Jesus says in the gospel of John [15:12]: ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.’”

Married, and with two children and one on the way, Olson says he was motivated by God’s love and leading as well as by a practical reality to become a kidney donor.

Since he had two healthy kidneys and people need only one healthy kidney to clean their blood, says Olson, “I decided that I could give one.”

Olson is what doctors call a “Good Samaritan” donor—a person who donates out of the goodness of his heart.

Normally, a spouse or close family member donates to the recipient.

In 2013, less than 500 of the nearly 6,000 people who received live kidney transplants were persons who were given kidneys by a “Good Samaritan,” according to the National Kidney Foundation.

“I never expected Pastor Zach to do this,” says VanderWal. “I plan to take care of this gift to the best of my ability.”

Before receiving the kidney and a new lease on life, says VanderWal, he had to undergo kidney dialysis several days a week. This is a process that takes four to five hours each time, during which his blood was pumped out of his body, cleaned by a machine, and then returned.

“It is a hard thing to go through, and I’ve been told that dialysis only removes about 10 to 15 percent of the impurities that a healthy kidney can remove,” he says.

VanderWal is no stranger to the process, having been on dialysis more than 16 years ago as well, after his kidneys failed due to diabetes and other medical problems.

At that time, his older sister donated a kidney to him, and that kidney worked well until last year. When that kidney failed, VanderWal’s wife and one of his children had their blood tested to see if they could be a match for him. But they have a different blood type.

Members of East Leonard and other churches, hearing of VanderWal’s need for another kidney, sent out prayers, seeking help.

Help came in the form of Olson, who spoke with VanderWal after a Sunday service last year to ask him some questions about the process leading to becoming a donor.

It was a quick conversation, and VanderWal didn’t think much more of it, he says.

But, to his surprise, his pastor went through the testing and learned that his blood type matched VanderWal’s. Then, after discussing it with his wife and praying about it, Olson decided to donate the kidney in an operation in mid-February.

“I was so excited when I learned that I was a match,” says Olson, who has been at East Leonard CRC about two years.

“Even though I had never had surgery before and my wife is pregnant with our third child, I knew this was a God thing. It has been a story of doors opening the entire way.”

As part of the process, Olson spoke to his church council and got their approval to move ahead with the surgery. He and VanderWal also sought advice from others about what ramifications the kidney donation might have for the East Leonard congregation.

When it was clear that nothing stood in the way of the donation, surgery was scheduled, and the operations took place in separate operating rooms at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Doctors first removed Olson’s kidney through a small incision. Then they made a larger incision in Vander Wal’s lower abdomen to attach the organ.

Meanwhile, family members waited anxiously in the waiting room.

They need not have worried; the operation was a success. The new kidney began filtering blood properly almost immediately, and within a few days both donor and recipient were home.

“I feel good, and I have energy,” says VanderWal. “This is really a renewal of life for me. The new kidney is taking over things in ways that the other kidney couldn’t.”

Sitting at the table in VanderWal’s home, both he and Olson said they appreciate all of the support they have received, especially from the East Leonard congregation.

People have continued to offer prayers and have brought meals to their homes, and one church member plowed the pastor’s driveway on a snowy day.

“This is a story about God providing a kidney and allowing our whole congregation to come together,” says Olson. “God was in charge of this from the very beginning in such a cool way.”


Originally published by Chris Meehan at http://www.crcna.org/news-and-views/gift-life