The Embodiment of Charity
It wasn’t enough for Father Alfred Cioffi, a nationally renowned bioethicist, to advocate for organ donation. In 2007, he put his words into action by donating a kidney to Margarita Chavez, a friend and former parishioner.
“If I’m going to talk, I have to be prepared to walk the talk,” explained Father Cioffi, who serves as chaplain of Miami Council 1726.
Similarly, it mattered little to Jerry Wheeler that he had known Kim Simpson for only a couple of years when he volunteered — immediately — to donate a kidney upon hearing Simpson say at a council meeting that he required a transplant.
“He was a Knight, and he was in need,” said Wheeler, of St. Thomas Council 11253 in Tukwila, Wash.
Finally, it was no issue for Michael Stapleton that he would face months of recovery by donating part of his liver to his cousin, Keith Davison.
“The big reason I did it is Jesus’ saying, ‘If you did it for someone else, you did it for me,’” said Stapleton, who, along with Davison is a member of St. Louis IX Council 3335 in Gallipolis, Ohio.
Father Cioffi, Wheeler and Stapleton are linked not only as Knights but also as living organ donors who performed these life-saving acts voluntarily. Their stories reflect a remarkable dedication to charity, the first principle of the Knights of Columbus.
OFF THE WAITING LIST
Father Cioffi said he doesn’t seek accolades for his deed but simply hopes his example will inspire others toward organ donation, which the Church approves of and encourages under appropriate conditions.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” Father Cioffi said. “Right now in the United State alone, there are about 100,000 people waiting for a kidney, and about 15 of those patients die every day.”
Kidneys are paired organs, and a living donor can function normally with a single kidney. It was Father Cioffi himself who ended the wait for Chavez, a parishioner during his time as pastor of St. Kevin Church in Miami from 1995-2000. Chavez, a diabetic, had suffered a stroke as a teenager and received two previous kidney transplants, as well as a pancreas transplant, during adulthood. Despite her health issues, she had remained highly active in parish activities.
“She was a source of inspiration, dynamic and energetic. She could run circles around me,” laughed Father Cioffi, 61, a native of Cuba who currently teaches biology and bioethics at St. Thomas University in Miami.
However, Chavez nearly died of pneumonia and acute renal failure in early 2007. A few months later, Father Cioffi approached her and offered to donate one of his kidneys, even though he was then stationed in Philadelphia with the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
“My reaction was, ‘No way. I cannot take your kidney. You are so important a person,’” said Chavez, 54. After a few months, with reassurance from Father Cioffi, Chavez finally agreed to accept the offer. The transplant took place in October 2007 in Miami.
That same year in Washington, Wheeler proposed a similar idea to Simpson who, like Chavez, had endured years of dialysis treatment. Wheeler quickly made the offer after overhearing Simpson mention his plight.
“He was, like, in shock,” recalled Wheeler, 69.
“You got that right,” added Simpson, 59.
Wheeler said an X-ray taken in the 1960s had seemingly indicated he had three kidneys, so he figured there was an extra to spare. “I said, ‘I have three, and if I can give you one I’ll be normal,’” he chuckled.
But while gaining medical clearance for the procedure, Wheeler discovered he had only two kidneys. Still, he continued with plans for the donation. The transplant was performed in November 2008 in Seattle.
Whereas Wheeler made his initial pitch to Simpson during a Knights of Columbus meeting, it was at a council breakfast in Ohio that Stapleton first offered a portion of his liver to Davison, 43.
“He teared up,” said Stapleton, 22. “I didn’t want to see his daughter grow up without a dad, especially knowing that I could have helped save her father’s life,” he added.
The cousins said that they previously hadn’t been close, mainly due to an age gap of more than 20 years. But during a family reunion last summer, Stapleton learned many details from Davison about his 17-year bout with liver disease and the four years he had already spent on a waiting list for a transplant. Stapleton then did some research on liver transplants and opted to step forward for Davison.
Stapleton, who also had to give up his gall bladder, donated 60 percent of his liver Oct. 8, 2013, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in what turned out to be a life-saving procedure.
“On the day of surgery, the surgeon told my wife my liver was only functioning at about 5 percent and I would have had less than a year to live,” said Davison.
RESTORED TO HEALTH
The only initial requirements for a living organ donor are good health and sharing the potential recipient’s blood type. From there, “several organs can be donated without significant harm to the donor: a kidney, a lobe of the lung, a lobe of the liver, pancreatic cells,” Father Cioffi said.
He further noted that the average duration of a transplanted kidney from a living donation is 15 to 16 years — about twice as long as the average for a cadaveric kidney.
Should a match for a living donation emerge, there’s still no guarantee that a transplant will turn out favorably — but thus far, it’s been a success for Chavez, Simpson and Davison.
More than six years after receiving Father Cioffi’s kidney, Chavez said she feels great — “very active, actually fantastic.” She remains in touch with Father Cioffi, who has earned her eternal gratitude.
“He does everything for everybody. I’m sure if you had needed a kidney, he would be there too,” Chavez said, adding that God’s providence guided the whole process: “God was the one who brought Father Cioffi to me.”
Simpson also uses the term “fantastic” when describing his own general health in the five-plus years since receiving Wheeler’s kidney. He added that he and his donor talk at least once a week on the phone.
“If it wasn’t for the Knights, I would not know Jerry,” said Simpson, who became Catholic in 1987.
Recovery time for kidney transplants is typically four to eight weeks for the recipient and half that long for the donor. Liver-transplant recoveries are lengthier; Davison’s projected recovery time was six months and Stapleton’s was three. Over those spans, Stapleton’s remaining liver and Davison’s transplanted one were expected to grow to almost full size.
Stapleton and Davison said their recoveries have progressed steadily, with Stapleton even managing to attend the March for Life Jan. 22 in Washington, D.C.
“I’m 100 percent pro-life. If we can do something that’s OK with the Church to help life, then we should do it,” Stapleton said.
“It’s still a weird feeling to feel good,” noted Davison, whose improved health has come about after many years of praying to St. Michael for a healing miracle. This prayer, he said, was clearly answered.
“I want you to take a look at the name of the person who saved my life,” Davison said. “It still chokes me up, thinking about it. I’ll forever appreciate what Michael did for me and our family.”
MIKE LATONA writes for the Catholic Courier, newspaper of the diocese of Rochester, N.Y.