Ultimate hospitality': Christian educator donates a kidney to aid a fellow church member

Ultimate hospitality': Christian educator donates a kidney to aid a fellow church member

April 30, 2004
Written by Daniel Hazard

Vicki McGaw, a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland never set out to be recognized or to be a hero. But to Bob Fortney's family of Dover Congregational UCC in Westlake, Ohio, Vicki is a "miracle from God."

On Feb. 24, at Cleveland's University Hospital, Vicki donated one of her kidneys to Fortney. He was neither a relative nor a close friend—only a man she had seen on occasion, but never met or even had a conversation with.

It started innocently enough.

Vicki, who is director of Christian education at Dover, was attending a church committee meeting and struck up a polite conversation with Bob's wife, Ruth. But soon, as they talked, both became teary eyed.

"We were just talking in general and I asked her how things were going," remembers Vicki, who then learned that Ruth's husband was in dire need of a kidney transplant, only months shy of undergoing dialysis.

Without a moment's hesitation, Vicki asked her, "What do I need to do to be tested?"

Vicki emphasizes that she was not pressured to act, but the family's predicament moved her.

"They have four girls," she says. "I knew how much those girls adored their dad. They needed their father and I could empathize with their situation. It was just an immediate sense of 'this is what I need to do.'"

Then while driving home, she thought to herself, "I just offered to give away an organ and I haven't even talked this over with my husband yet!" But then she thought, "Oh well, we've been married 25 years, he certainly knows me by now. I can sell him on it."

'A risk, to be sure'

Her husband, Mike, was concerned. This would be the first time either one of them would undergo any type of major surgery.

"He was worried something would happen to me," Vicki says. "We really had to struggle with it."

It took about three weeks for her husband to think about it. Finally, he said, "If that's what you need to do, then go and do it."

But Vicki wanted him to be comfortable with her decision. So Mike did something to make himself feel more at ease—he called his life insurance agent.

When the agent assured him that organ donors are not hindered from getting life insurance, he felt a little better about the safety of the procedure. It was a risk, to be sure, but maybe it was not a grave one.

By now, Vicki's son and daughter had grown used to their mother's bent toward radical kindness. She's always helping strangers and strays, they say, like the time when McGaw aided a stranger from Poland (who spoke no English) at the airport, offering to drive him to his destination.

Vicki was tested for compatibility just before Thanksgiving. Ironically, she was more of a perfect match than any of Fortney's family members.

"I never once felt afraid, ever," Vicki says. "I kept thinking I would be nervous on the day of surgery but I was never nervous."

The surgery lasted five hours, and Mike admits to being put through his paces. "I brought a book to read. I think I read the same half page a million times," he says.

For two days, Vicki recuperated in the hospital before returning home. By Sunday—only five days later—she was back at church.

"I felt really good," she says. "People brought over food and I rested quite a bit."

'A humbling experience'

The Rev. Robert Chase, publisher of United Church News, visited Vicki at her home after the surgery.

The following Sunday, during a sermon he gave at Pilgrim UCC, he told of Vicki's generosity. It was an "ultimate act of hospitality," he said.

Bob Fortney, too, has recovered well. With his new kidney functioning normally, he has no complaints. Still, being the recipient of such generosity has been an extraordinarily emotional experience.

"I'm the one who gives, I'm not used to being on the receiving end," Bob says. "Having to rely on Vicki has been a humbling experience. She has done a lot for making the next years of my life productive ones. It's something you can't put into words."

Dover's senior pastor, the Rev. Scott Patterson, says he has noticed a remarkable difference in his congregation.

"Since Vicki's surgery, I've witnessed something unexpected. People are asking where is God in their lives? They know it was no coincidence Vicki was a match for Bob and the generosity and compassion she displayed was extraordinary. They know God was involved."

Although elated about receiving a "new" kidney, Bob admits to a certain kind of spiritual bewilderment.

He questioned his pastor before the surgery, asking, "Why would someone do this for me?" Such generosity can be hard to grasp.

'God put me here'

The Rev. Kelly Burd, associate pastor of Dover, says Vicki's benevolence "has infused a sense of energy and life into [the congregation's] faith journey."

Neither of Dover's two pastors were surprised by Vicki's decision, and Kelly says it was a selfless act that is consistent with the kind of person she is.

"Vicki looks for experiences in her own life and other's lives and how God and her faith call her to live in the world," the associate pastor explains. "To Vicki, this was a call."

It's taken Vicki a while to get adjusted to telling her story. She's not a publicity seeker, and she certainly doesn't give in order to receive in return. No frills, no hype—that's her style. She just sensed a need to help.

"I thought of all of the things that could have disqualified me as a donor and none of it happened, so I really felt this is what God put me here to do," she says. "A person can find 20 million reasons not to do something, but there is usually one reason that sticks with you as to why you should. I guess that one reason never left my head and the 20 million ones never entered it."

For more information on organ donation, call the Organ Information Line at 888-894-6361 or visit their website www.unos.org. For specific information on kidney donation, call the National Kidney Foundation at 800-622-9010. Their website address is www.kidney.org.

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