When God wants your kidney
TULSA, Okla. — "It’s you, Shannon.” Shannon Wilburn heard the voice…
NEW BERN, N.C. — Sam Birmingham needed a kidney. He desperately needed a kidney.
His quality of life — his life itself — depended on it.
But the longtime Christian, who had always loved to fish and enjoy the water in this riverfront town near the North Carolina coast, was having trouble finding a donor.
A lot of trouble.
“It was getting really bad. I was just worn out. I couldn’t do anything.”
“It was getting really bad,” said Birmingham, 78, a father of four and grandfather of 13.
“I was just worn out,” added the U.S. Coast Guard veteran, who has been married to his wife, Jan, for 42 years. “I couldn’t do anything.”
In the fall of 2019, Steve Hurst and Bob Markman, elders of the New Bern Church of Christ — Birmingham’s home congregation in this community of 31,000, about 115 miles southeast of Raleigh — decided to take action.
“Bob and I got together one day and talked about the fact that we just couldn’t let Sam die,” Hurst recalled. “And we had The Christian Chronicle on the desk, and we decided we would get in touch.”
The elders talked to Tonya Patton, then the Chronicle’s advertising manager, and bought a quarter-page ad in the October 2019 print edition, mailed to nearly 135,000 subscribers nationwide.
The ad ran at the top of page 31.
“Sam Birmingham needs a kidney,” it said, adding in parenthesis, “(We only need one to live.)”
The text-heavy ad featured a small black-and-white photo of Birmingham.
It begged fellow Christians to help.
“It’s not often that we have an opportunity to deliberately step in and save someone’s life, but here is one of those occasions,” the New Bern church elders wrote. “If you have it in your heart, we ask you to carefully read this and pray over your decision to donate one of your kidneys. As time is short to help in this way, please use the contact information below to start the process. But first, here are a few things you should know about Sam …”
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The elders told about Birmingham’s father, a World War II hero and former New Bern elder. They told about Birmingham knocking on doors to share the Gospel, teaching Bible classes at church and ministering to a nursing home next door to the building. They told about Birmingham and his wife opening their home to two young granddaughters when their daughter died of cancer.
“Sam and Jan have lived sacrificial lives and are truly good, godly Christian people who are in need of your help,” the ad continued. “The Elders of the New Bern Church of Christ sincerely ask you to volunteer for this worthy effort.”
The elders noted that the donor’s expenses would be covered. They gave details for contacting Birmingham’s transplant coordinator, Linda Ipock, at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, N.C.
Patton, who served as the Chronicle’s ad manager for 10 years, said the ad — not the first one the paper had run in search of a kidney donor — moved her.
In fact, Patton, a member of the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, had tested years earlier to see if she might donate a kidney to a stranger.
But she worried that the New Bern ad might be too wordy to catch readers’ attention.
“You hated to encourage them to cut anything out,” said Patton, who left the Chronicle earlier this year to focus on her family and ministry interests. “And knowing that these were people who were not making money from this — this was truly an out-of-pocket, we-want-our-brother-to-survive thing — you kind of let it go.
“And then to see the connection made,” she added, “there is nothing like being on the front row — literally on the front row — and watching God’s kingdom respond to a request and deliver.”
When the ad ran, Melissa McFerrin, 30, lived in Searcy, Ark. — roughly 1,000 miles west of New Bern.
Her husband, Clay McFerrin, worked as a recruiter for Harding University’s Graduate School of Business.
“We did get The Christian Chronicle at the house, and so when it came every month, I’d read it,” said Melissa McFerrin, a 2014 graduate of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., where she majored in Bible missions.
“And really, the only way that I can describe it is that God pricked my heart that this was something that I could help with,” she added. “I had a brother in need, and I’ve been blessed with very good health all my life. He needed something that I could give.”
As she read the ad, tears streamed down her face.
McFerrin talked to her husband about it, and he supported her desire to check into it.
“There’s a variety of testing and procedures to go through prior to (donating a kidney), so we had plenty of time to think about it and pray about it and know that it was something we wanted to do,” she said.
Donor compatibility is established through blood tests that look for matching blood types and antigens, according to Columbia University’s Department of Surgery. The overall health of the potential donor is also important.
Currently, 90,000 people are on the national transplant list for a donor kidney, according to donatelife.net.
“Really, the only way that I can describe it is that God pricked my heart that this was something that I could help with. I had a brother in need.”
“It’s pretty intense,” McFerrin said of the process after her initial blood tests. “I had an MRI, EKG, chest X-ray, blood work. They take 12 vials of blood, do all sorts of things on it. I don’t even know what all they look for.”
That comprehensive testing began in February 2020.
But then came the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020.
Suddenly, hospitals across the U.S. halted “nonessential” surgeries. As coronavirus cases raged, Birmingham’s kidney transplant was put on hold. In November 2020, Markman, 73, one of the elders who worked to save Birmingham’s life, died of complications from the coronavirus.
“Bob was another good, godly man,” said Hurst, his fellow elder. “We miss him a lot.”
After a year’s delay, McFerrin remained intent on giving Birmingham one of her kidneys.
In February 2021, she resumed the testing process.
“I essentially had to re-up my testing,” she said. “So I did all the same things again.”
Eventually, she was confirmed as a match, and the surgery was scheduled for Sept. 15, 2021.
She felt a mix of joy and gratefulness.
“I’m a fixer by nature,” she said. “So this was a problem with a solution that I could effect, and that feels good. … But I know for a fact — an absolute certainty — that it was very, very little me and very, very much God because we were a match, and the timing worked out.”
McFerrin still marvels at all the unlikely details that came together.
“Here I am several states away, and there he is,” she said. “And we’ve got the age difference and his sensitivity with the antibodies. But it did work. I happened to read that ad, and I can see God’s hand throughout all of this.”
“I know for a fact — an absolute certainty — that it was very, very little me and very, very much God because we were a match, and the timing worked out.”
By the time of the surgery, the donor and her husband had moved to Iron City, Tenn. — just north of the Alabama state line.
That’s closer to where Birmingham lives but still 750 miles away.
The couple attend the Chisholm Hills Church of Christ in Florence, Ala. Melissa McFerrin serves as the executive administrative assistant to Kirk Brothers, the president of Heritage Christian University in Florence. Clay McFerrin is Heritage’s director of institutional and church research.
News that Melissa McFerrin planned to donate her kidney to a stranger surprised Felicia Plunket, a fellow Chisholm Hills member.
“You hear about people donating kidneys to family members,” said Plunket, a mother of two adult daughters. “But to donate it to a perfect stranger is, to me, just so hard to do.”
Giving a kidney at such a young age and having faith God will take care of you “is a big, big thing,” the 52-year-old Christian added. “I was really impressed by that.”
“You hear about people donating kidneys to family members. But to donate it to a perfect stranger is, to me, just so hard to do.”
A kidney transplant qualifies as major surgery.
McFerrin’s surgery occurred at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., and then her kidney was flown to North Carolina for Birmingham’s transplant.
McFerrin spent two nights in the hospital and then headed home with her husband.
“You have to be careful for several weeks about not picking up heavy things because the surgery involves a number of incisions in the abdominal area,” she said. “They give you lots of medicine to keep from coughing or vomiting or anything that would clench those muscles.”
“I had the most amazing outpouring of support. … The congregation banded together, and they made a plan, and everybody brought us food and prayed for us and talked to us.”
McFerrin didn’t need to worry about cooking.
“I had the most amazing outpouring of support from our congregation at Chisholm Hills,” she said. “The congregation banded together, and they made a plan, and everybody brought us food and prayed for us and talked to us.”
She returned to work a week after the surgery.
Nearly a year later, the incision scars provide the only indication of the surgery.
“Except for the scars, I would never know that I’d done it,” she said. “I feel I’m probably the healthiest I’ve ever been. Clay and I exercise regularly, and we’re active, and I have not had any major impact on my level of activity or anything as a result.”
For Birmingham, the transplant changed everything: It gave him a new chance at a healthy life.
He said he’s humbled that about two dozen Chronicle readers — not just McFerrin — inquired about the possibility of donating a kidney after seeing the ad.
“I’m just so, so thankful that I had the opportunity to get that kidney. I tell you, I don’t think I’d be here right now if I hadn’t got it.”
“The nurses and the doctors who worked on me at the hospital were just fantastic, I’m telling you,” Birmingham said. “They did a really good job.
“And I’m just so, so thankful that I had the opportunity to get that kidney,” he added. “I tell you, I don’t think I’d be here right now if I hadn’t got it.”
For years, Birmingham has served as the cook at a “pig pickin’” event for Christian men in eastern North Carolina. Now, he’s able to assume that role — which involves barbecuing a whole hog — once again.
“Sam has been a pillar in the church for a long, long time,” Hurst said, sitting beside Birmingham on the transplant recipient’s living room couch. “We just could not stand the thought of losing him without giving it a good fight.”
Unless a donor has a preexisting relationship with the recipient, medical officials protect the giver’s identity.
So for months, Birmingham didn’t know who gave him the kidney.
After the surgery, he wrote a letter of thanks to his donor. He gave it to his nurses and asked them to make sure she received it.
“But the catch is, they couldn’t give it to her until it had been at least 90 days after the transplant,” he said. “So after the 91st day, I started on them again. I said, ‘I want to know the name of that person. I want to be able to connect.’
“And they said, ‘Well, we’ll have to see if she wants to talk to you.’”
Finally, they gave him her name and telephone number.
“I called her, and we talked for a long time,” he said. “Oh gosh, I was just so thankful. It’s unbelievable what a difference it’s made. I was just telling her how much I appreciated her.
“She told me, ‘Well, I read the article that was written, and it touched my heart enough to know that I had to do something.’”
After talking on the phone, Birmingham and McFerrin later visited face to face in a video conversation.
The Chronicle did not receive news of the transplant until earlier this summer, via an email from McFerrin.
“The story is not about us,” she said in that message, “but about the love and prayer of Christian family who have walked beside us — and about the God who orchestrated it all.
“Maybe our experience, with its amazing blessings on both sides, will encourage another to listen to God’s prompting in his or her heart and change someone’s life forever.”
Birmingham and McFerrin still have not met in person.
They made plans to meet earlier this year during a layover in Charlotte, N.C., as McFerrin and her husband returned home from a mission trip to Peru. But flight changes scrapped those plans.
“I would love to meet him,” McFerrin said. “We just haven’t been able to yet.”
When it does happen, she anticipates an abundance of tears and prayers. And a hug.
A very special hug.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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