Another Kind of Christmas Miracle

Post a Comment » Written on December 25th, 2003     
Filed under: News
By Craig Pinley

BEDFORD, NH (December 25, 2003)  – The Christian community remembers Christmas as a time to celebrate God’s gift of a Savior to humankind.

For an Evangelical Covenant church in New Hampshire, however, Christmas 2003 is also a time to celebrate the gift of one man to another.

Fifty four-year-old Mark Powers of Nashua, New Hampshire, a member of Bethany Covenant Church in Bedford, was diagnosed with a rare liver disease nearly 10 years ago. During recent months, however, it became clear that he would need a miracle if he expected to live much longer.

The miracle came earlier this month – a new liver, the gift of life from fellow parishioner Kevin Moher.

Moher heard about Powers’ plight during a March worship service and a few weeks later decided to become a living donor. The transplant took place December 2 at New England Medical Center in Boston. Moher gave more than half of his liver to Powers and thus far the transplant has been successful. Both are recovering well and the two plan to spend time during the Christmas break watching Stuck On You, a movie about brothers who are joined at the waist. Given their recent experience, the film seems appropriate for two men joined by unique acts of faith.

To Bethany Covenant pastor Bob Bergquist, the story of Powers and Moher illustrates the best of what Christian community is all about. Powers wanted to share how God was present during a difficult physical period of his life – his gift was that of a powerful story of faith. It was another parishioner – Moher – who received that gift and in turn gave a gift of his own to Powers. Ultimately, the events involving the two parishioners serves as an object lesson his church won’t soon forget, Bergquist notes.

“This has been a great experience for our congregation, as we have been made aware of the fact that we all have the opportunity to share ourselves freely with each other,” Bergquist said. “We have known ‘in theory’ that we are all part of one body, but this had a special way of making that truth very applicable and real.”

The Medical Story

Mark Powers was diagnosed with PSC (Primary Schleorotic Cholangitis) in 1994, a liver condition whereby bile ducts inside the liver become damaged and scarred. That scarring keeps the bile from flowing out of the liver. Ultimately, the blockage leads to the destruction of the liver cells and keeps the liver from doing its primary job of filtering toxins out of the blood.

“Once an accurate diagnosis was made in 1994, I was told this was incurable,” said Powers, a clinical social worker. “And because it’s not curable, the only remedy was a transplant. But if the organ was replaced, not only would I be cured, but I would be disease-free.”

The disease did not immediately manifest itself outwardly. “Up until about two years ago, I had as much energy and vigor as anyone on the block,” he said. But soon key symptoms occurred, including jaundice. His skin took on a greenish-yellow tone accompanied by pruritis, a severe itching all over his body. He also started becoming exhausted while doing normal tasks.

“I had maintained contact with a doctor every six months,” said Powers recalled. “Beginning two years ago, I needed hospitalization for two transfusions. I was very slowly losing blood. The liver is like a filter and all of the blood passes through the liver. When it gets clogged up, it starts popping blood vessels and you wind up with internal bleeding.”

About the time the disease began to accelerate, Powers was told that it would be nearly impossible for a living donor to give a portion of his or her liver to Powers as most transplants come from cadavers – the liver is “harvested” once a family member grants permission. A second kind of transplant – involving a “living donor” – allows a person of the same blood type with a sizable liver to donate part of their liver (usually 60 percent or more). This can occur because a healthy liver can regenerate itself fairly quickly.

In February, Powers began sharing news of his condition with work colleagues and his church because he was so sick he knew he could die. For many, the news was the first they had heard of the disease.

The Donor’s Story

Kevin Moher is a 45-year-old truck driver from Bedford, the father of two boys. He is also a lifelong blood donor and someone who has considered organ donation in the past. Moher said that although many people have told him that he is courageous, he thinks that Powers showed just as much courage in sharing his testimony.

“You could tell Mark was ill – his skin was yellow to yellow-green,” said Moher in recalling the day he first heard Powers’ story. “I didn’t know specifically what was wrong with him. I have been a blood donor for many years. I’ve always felt ‘here’s a no-cost way to help somebody and I don’t care who it is.’

“I didn’t know that you could give a partial liver,” Moher continued. “I only knew that you could not live without a liver and I only had one of them. But when Mark gave his speech, I nudged my wife in the pew and shrugged my shoulders as if to say, ‘Why don’t we go for this?’ She didn’t know what I meant at the time, but when we got home and I told her, she seemed all for this. She said, ‘Whatever you want to do, I’ll support you.'”

A few hours after hearing Powers’ testimony at church, Moher called Powers, but only reached the family’s answering machine. He left Powers a message stating that he was interested in being a donor. One of Powers’ two daughters, Erin, heard Moher’s message and immediately called her father, who had gone to work. A day later, Powers talked to Moher.

Originally, Powers didn’t think he would be able to benefit from Moher’s generosity. He had met with his doctors to find out if a living donor could donate part of a liver and said he was told that it would be nearly impossible for a living donor to provide a liver.

However, in late March, Powers began a brief period where his body seemed to be healing itself. The jaundice lessened and Powers got some of his energy back. His physical improvement allowed doctors to reconsider the option of receiving a liver via a living donor. Powers calls that period in his life a miracle, a time when God intervened.

Prelude to a Transplant

Once Powers got the okay that Moher might be able to donate a liver, the two were interviewed by the New England Medical Center in Boston. During a three-month period in the summer, they extensively evaluated the situation. Moher works four days a week as a truck driver for an automotive oil distribution service and working in a handful of New England states. Because he had Tuesdays off, Moher could schedule doctors’ appointments in Boston during the week, an added blessing in the process.

Invasive testing (an out-patient procedure that consumed the better part of a day) was part of the process as was a psycho-social evaluation with Moher and his wife, Lisa Jo. The evaluations gave doctors the opportunity to find out why Moher would want to donate to someone who was nearly a total stranger.

“Frankly, they were estimating whether Kevin had his head screwed on right,” said Powers. “They wanted to make sure he didn’t do this for unsound medical reasons.”

The New England Medical Center gave approval for the donation in October and surgery was set for December 2. The two men had contact about every two or three weeks during the summer and fall, other than the evaluation process. By and large, however, Powers tried to give Moher space in order to make an informed choice about what he was planning to do.

“Once I knew there was a living donor possibility, I wanted other people to begin praying for Kevin,” said Powers. “He and Lisa Jo were reluctant to have their name mentioned in church until it was a ‘go’ because they didn’t want to worry their two children. And I wanted to make sure that Lisa Jo was as much ‘on board’ as Kevin was. I didn’t want to be a pest – I wanted to protect their privacy – and give enough free space for them to feel fine about backing out.”

Although Moher’s wife seemed content with her husband’s decision, Kevin needed to explain the implications to his children, ages 14 and 12. “They just needed to be reassured that I wasn’t going to leave them,” he said. “I told them I was very confident with the care I would get and I told about the benefits of this. I told them there was risk in everything, but for me it was a slam-dunk decision. I hoped that they could see it for the good that it would do.”

Moher said he never had any doubts that he would go through with the transplant. “I knew I would do it. I knew that the doctors would have to kick me out for some medical reason. Their (the doctors) biggest fear was that they were rushing me,” said Moher. “They gave me an out — they said that they’d protect my honor – and they were very thorough in asking Lisa Jo if she had any questions so she was aware of everything along the way. Although they hesitate to use the term, it’s like it’s routine for them (doctors). They do hundreds of them and they were confident. I’m 45 years old. I’m in good health. I was confident it would work out right.

“I’m not masochistic,” Moher continued. “But I never would’ve called Mark if I didn’t think I would do it. I think most people, if given a chance to save a life, would do it. If you saw someone drowning in a river, you’d dive in and save them – it’s that important. And I don’t think there are any grander things in life than saving a life. It’s just that different opportunities are presented to different people in their lives. And I could do this – and it didn’t phase me like it might phase other people.”

The Surgery

Once Bethany Covenant discovered who would be donating a liver to Powers, they began to pray. And pray. And pray. So far, the prayers seem to have been answered in the form of good health for both Powers and Moher.

“When it finally became ‘official,’ people were overwhelmed by Moher and his family’s, generosity,” said Bergquist of Moher. “When people would tell him what a ‘hero’ he was, Kevin would get very uncomfortable. He simply said that this was something he could do, and felt called to do, just as others give of themselves in teaching, serving, music, and the like. The majority of people I talked with said they could never see themselves going through this kind of procedure, but for Kevin, it seemed ‘natural.’ Those who know Kevin best were really not surprised it was him who made the offer.

“Many people in the church had been praying for Mark,” Bergquist continued. “His name was on the list in the bulletin of people we pray for – for many months. He was never ‘sick enough’ to qualify for a transplant from a person who had died, but we were concerned that it did not seem as if he was going to get any better without one. The Sunday before the surgery (November 30), we invited Mark and Kevin to come to the front of the sanctuary for prayer, and invited family and anyone else who wanted to gather around them. It was a very moving moment for all of us, and we felt privileged to be able to share in that time.”

Powers and Moher both arrived at the hospital on December 1 and the two men were in separate rooms that night. They were wheeled into surgical preparation on the morning of December 2. They talked briefly about 30 minutes before surgery and then, said Powers, “I remember very specifically the preparation . . . and then I woke up. I lost a whole day in surgery.”

Remarkably, Powers only spent one extra day in the Intensive Care Unit and then stayed two more weeks at the hospital, a week shorter than usual. Apparently, Moher’s liver was extremely healthy and Powers has a strong constitution. Perhaps the most painful part of the early recovery was due to stomach pain that occurred while Powers and Moher were joking around. “We were in the same ward,” said Moher of the initial post-operative time. “And I would make him laugh and he would make him laugh and we’d have to pare back the laughter.”

As with all transplant patients, Powers will take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life and it will be important to keep him isolated from others for a while in order for his immunity system to kick in. There is some pain and he has a leak in his bile duct – and that can be a concern. However, in general, Powers said, “I feel significantly better than I have the past two years.”

As for Moher, the recovery phase should be less than Powers. He was told he should be able to begin work in mid-January. Other than some minor digestive problems, he is healthy and has experienced relatively minor pain. He is able to walk two miles on his treadmill during the recovery phase. Although he can’t wrestle around with his kids yet, he said, “I feel pretty good.”

The Aftermath

The pastor, the donor and the recipient have all been blessed by what has occurred this month. And the blessings will continue to come, they added.

Bethany Covenant has raised a substantial amount of money to help defray some of the medical costs not covered by insurance. The congregation has also been ministering to both the Powers and Moher families and has enjoyed and appreciated both the improved health of Powers and the joy that the Mohers have in being part of the miracle.

“It was very important to Mark (Powers) to be able to share his experience with liver disease with the congregation,” said Bergquist. “He was desirous to share the perspective he had gained on trusting himself to God and his care, even though his future was very uncertain. He had come to a peace through it and he thought his insight could be helpful to people. It was if he was giving a gift to the congregation. In many ways, he set an example for all of us. Church should be a place where you can share your hurts. And it was in his willingness to share this that it became an open door to healing.

“When Kevin (Moher) heard that a living donor could be a possibility, he immediately considered that he might be able to do that,” Bergquist continued. “He was on the lookout for ways to be of help, and offering part of his liver to a person in need of a healthy one sounded like something he would be able to do. That’s the wonderful thing about his attitude – oftentimes we have all of these things that hold us back from meeting a need and he was like, ‘Why not?’

Powers said that the generosity of others has been a hallmark of his recent experience. “One of the most remarkable things is the humility of Kevin and Lisa Jo,” said Powers of the Mohers. The only thing they get out of it is risk – you’re introducing so many things that could go wrong. There’s a small possibility of dying during the surgery, but there’s the possibility of infection and you may have to stop working for a couple of months. I’m inspired that a person from my church would do something like this. It makes me feel like doing something like that (something that bold). I’m not a person who goes to every function at church, but I feel like I’ve got such a different view of what we can give to each other.

“I have a pretty good self-esteem,” Powers continued. “But, basically, I’m an ordinary guy. There’s no reason that people should find favor with me. I don’t seek the public light to be who I am and there weren’t thousands of people who knew of my condition. And I didn’t spread this around a whole lot. But I can’t tell you of how many people have been involved or blessed by this. I feel one of the luckiest people around to be part of a story that is still unfolding. I’m awestruck by what God has done for me and so many other people.”

Moher continues to see himself as a person just doing what he felt called to do at the time. In a recent telephone interview, he spoke about a parishioner who walked away from a lucrative medical practice and now serves the unders erved in Romania. He believes her act was his inspiration, perhaps. But he is aware that his actions may have further positive implications and he’s glad for that. He’s also glad he has gotten to know Mark Powers better.

“Obviously, we’re pretty good friends now,” said Moher about his relationship with Powers. “Mark is a gentle spirit. He’s a very kind man, a very thoughtful man. I’m glad I could do it for him and every day I want to hear more encouraging news about his recovery.

“It’s been my best Christmas ever,” Moher continued. “I don’t think it could ever been topped. I couldn’t be more filled.”

(The accompanying photo shows – from left – Mark Powers, Vicki Hilton, Lisa Jo and Kevin Moher.)

Copyright © 2011 The Evangelical Covenant Church.

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