There are many things in this life that some of us take for granted. Maybe it’s having someone to share your life with, or perhaps even knowing that you woke up today through God’s amazing grace. For myself, life has been a journey of trying to celebrate the small stuff in hopes that I would have something unique and spectacular to rejoice in one day. That major unbelievable event would be a Kidney Transplantation. Some will be reading that have known me a long time and know the struggle before this event. Those that are just getting to know me are seeing a transformed and blessed human being. Well, ladies and gentlemen, saddle up and take a ride on the wild side as I tell you how one can save many!
You may have read that intro and thought, “this writer might be a little off her rocker!” You are not wrong, friend. I am a little strange, admittedly, but it is only because God’s mercy and grace helped a very sick little girl become a well-thought-out and empathetic woman with big dreams and with an even bigger ambition to make it happen.
I was born in 1985 when medical science and technology were really on the verge of big things. But, unfortunately, my body was something outside the box of “normal.” My kidneys were an unruly mess. My first surgery was just at six weeks old. Considering I just had my 200th surgery in August 2021, it’s obvious to say I was in for a less than easy ride. My first heart attack would come just before I turned six years old, and by the time I started High School, my life was sustained by Kidney Dialysis. In the straights of watching his daughter struggle just to live, my dad decided to get tested to be a Living Kidney Donor. HE WAS A MATCH! It was a gift from Heaven. But a joyous moment was interrupted when God had other plans. The poor kidney suffered a setback that it was not able to recover from in whole. SEPSIS! A nasty infection that was starting to threaten my life. Back to dialysis, it would be.
For seventeen nonstop years, I was tethered to a machine trying to make sense of who, where, what, when and why my life was going to be saved. Once again, I set myself up to be evaluated and eventually relisted on the National Kidney Transplant List. A list about 10 miles long, with many factors that make this list what it is. At the time, the national average wait for a kidney transplant from a deceased donor was approximately five years. So here I was, seventeen years in, and with many new issues that caused me to keep placing me on the “inactive” side of the list. The evaluation process is a long, miserable obstacle course of basically trying to meet each department’s minimum satisfactory rating associated with your bodily, mental, and emotional functions. A rollercoaster doesn’t have as many freak-out moments as the evaluation process. This process is so open for interpretation that one transplant program before coming to the one I’m at said, “her complex medical history makes us believe that she won’t be successful. We feel it’s best for her to be removed from the list.” Praise God from whom all blessings flow; the other transplant program did not feel this way. All things in God’s plan.
It would be at UC Health University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, where I would find that hope, prayer, and compassion that would sustain me and open my eyes to who I am in Christ and who I can be to others. On March 16, 2017, I received what is known in the transplant community as “the call.” Meaning there was a kidney that could be a possible match and to pack my bags. I will try my best to lay it out very plain without too many big-dollar medical terms for those unfamiliar. The way it seems to be is you get a call from a transplant coordinator, usually an RN, telling you that your name has come up and a possible match has been found. Then further testing is done that can take up to 8 hours. This long strenuous wait for tests was the case for me. Just the month before, I had received that call and was ready to start a new life when 7 hours and 50 minutes later, they would tell me that the donor’s kidney was, in reality, damaged and to go ahead and go to dialysis treatment. Talk about a blow to my hope. It was a situation that I’m somewhat ashamed of but coming to terms with in time. I had honestly thought that I had disappointed God in every way conceivable for the chance at transplant to be so close and feel like it was snatched away from me. Like I’ve said, it was something that, looking back, I’m not sure why I would think that, or why from time to time I get that feeling. Well, life would march on, and I along with it.
Shoot straight to 11:10 am in Pueblo, Colorado, receiving a call during an ultrasound of my last native kidney (the last kidney of the kidneys that I was born with) when I would welcome that all-important call that rocked my world. I was so insecure as a patient that I asked the coordinator, “are you legit serious?” Yes. I do indeed talk like I’m uneducated, but I was waiting for her to say, “OOPS, not you.” And golly gee… It was indeed me! Words in the English language cannot and probably will never find a way to adequately describe the sheer joy and hope I felt as she continued to reassure me that I was the recipient they wanted. I spent the rest of the day conversing with God, just trying not to get my hopes too high and keep me grounded.
While listening to Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park on YouTube (The 59th Street Bridge Song “Feelin’ Groovy,” to be exact), the final call of the calling process was made! All systems are GO! We’ll skip the 2-hour drive to the hospital, the hours of panic, anxiety, fear, wondering what all might go wrong, and the wait inside the walls of the hospital for this anticipated and unexpectedly wonderful moment in time to take place.
Life, in all its mysterious blessings, was about to be forever changed. A surgeon like none other walked up to me and so sincerely said, “My name is Dr.Trevor Nydam, and I will be your surgeon.” I politely and jokingly smiled and said, “I’m Sara, and I guess I’m going to be your patient.” You may be reading this and looking at the legendary name NYDAM. You might even be trying to figure out how or why you know that name. Well, as God and only God would have it, my surgeon happens to be the oldest son of now-retired Calvin Theological Seminary Pastoral Care Professor, Rev. Dr. Ronald J. Nydam, Ph.D. At that point and time, I knew nothing of the Nydam’s. Nothing of their connection to anything Reformed. No knowledge of their ambitions, their determination to care for those in need, nor the relationships that would follow. I will save all of that for a later article this semester. So, if you’re reading this and it’s way past the publishing date, look and see if there is indeed an article with a whole tangled web of Nydams. At that moment, he was just another surgeon about to cut me open and explore the unknown insides of a patient that, on March 17, 2017, had already seen 151 surgeries. Well, number 152 commenced, and I was deep under anesthesia.
When I woke up from the kidney transplant, the pain was so bad that words said at that moment could not and should never be repeated! The anger and fear had taken place. I couldn’t believe I was feeling so miserable after receiving life. The biggest shocker and painstaking truth I had to confront was going back on dialysis, at least temporarily. If I’d only known then what I know now, my world would be different.
Skip to the tenth day of the recovery process. I’m in a world of indescribable pain with multiple complications, and the kidney was still not wanting to play fair. However, I had reached my peak of what I could handle on my own, emotionally and spiritually. On day ten, I talked with one of my transplant nurses and told her how angry I felt. I had gotten to the point where I thought that if Dr. Nydam gave me any more news that I couldn’t handle, I might just try to punch him. It’s a little odd looking back at that moment because I would never want to hurt anyone, ever. Needless to say, my ability to be positive had left me, and all that was left was this overwhelming feeling of despair.
The nurse could hear the team of Physicians, surgeons, social workers, medical students, and many more outside my door. She had walked out to find out what was going on. She came back in to tell me that they had decided to skip rounds on me that day. I thought to myself, “that’s right, you don’t want to walk in here right now for your own safety!” She was quick to tell me that Dr. Nydam would be coming in by himself later after they had finished rounding on other patients. My mind went to the worst possible scenarios. Could he be coming in to tell me that there was nothing left for them to do and to make my peace with God? Deep, I know. But after years of ongoing medical struggles, I have heard things from other doctors and social workers, even hospital chaplains, that would make the general public cringe.
It would be about two hours of sheer panic before he would walk into the room. My heart was racing the entire time. Finally, he walked in, and there was something different about him. He sat on the couch in my room next to the chair. He asked, “so, how are you really feeling?” Oh boy, my opportunity to let him have it! “I am in so much pain; I am angry and frustrated!” At this point, my blood was boiling. “I have waited seventeen years for this, and I can’t deal with it. What did you do?” He was as calm and patient with me as he could be. What followed next has stuck with me since that day, and I pray it never leaves my memory.
He proceeded to tell me the challenges that he faced personally as the surgeon to get the kidney in. They ran across a mass amount of scar tissue that was taking a long time to remove. Every part of my vessels that they had tried to connect to started to collapse. By this point, my spirit and who I am beginning to return to me. Tears were streaming down my face. I was coming to the end of realizing that for the past ten days, I was on the verge of HATING (I don’t use the word hate lightly) a man that actually cared a great deal, not just for my kidney, my body, but more importantly my well-being. I looked at him and kept telling him I was so sorry as the tears kept coming and my body started to tremble. Finally, he said, “STOP SAYING YOU’RE SORRY!” I had instantly thought that I had pushed him over the edge with my emotions, and he would get up and walk out any second. But as quick as I could think that, he said, “you never have to say sorry to me.” I know that doesn’t seem like something worth an article, but at that moment, there was such sincere compassion for a patient in deep pain well beyond the physical that Christ’s love, and only that was what would be what I could feel.
As I look back at my many interactions with him for the past 4 ½ years (1,645 days, but who’s counting), every interaction I have had with him in person or even in writing has allowed me to grow in my faith. This past surgery in August 2021 was another tough one for me from a hope standpoint. And even though he was not my surgeon, he was my spiritual rock. He said things like “You’re amazing!! Never could be disappointed” and “you can do all things through Him,” and of course, when all was said and done, and when the smile had returned to my face, we celebrated together with him saying, “I told you.” And, of course, a big thumbs-up emoji! So as I’m writing this article I am smiling because for some reason I trust this man. He has seen and heard me at my worst, but he is also the man that knows what I am capable of at my best.
As I am closing this out reliving just a snippet of my life, I want to call attention to what you can do for someone else when giving compassion and Christ’s love to someone in the transplant community:
1. Be a light for someone stuck in the dark. You never know; it may be the one thing that gives that person a reason to hang tough and smile at whatever they face.
2. In some cases, be an ear or eye willing to hear them vent or try to communicate feelings that they might not even know they have.
3. Pray, Pray, Pray! Prayers are appreciated, especially in the transplant community.
To the transplant community, whether you’re on the list just trying to keep hope alive, a recipient that is just happy to be here, or a caregiver that’s watching what God is capable of from the sidelines, you matter to the world. It may not always seem like it on the tough days. I am speaking from experience, you matter to the world, but more importantly, you count to a sovereign God. He created you for more than you know at this moment. In the words of the one and only Dr. Trevor Nydam, “we need to hang tough and get through this. It will be worth it in the end!”
Sara Millard Distance Learning MA PCL seminary student. Pastoral Care Intern at First Presbyterian Church in Pueblo, Colorado. 4-time World Champion Pioneer Cart Shooter, 2-time kidney transplant recipient, and just happy to be here!