Twice Gifted with Life
“Please Send A Pizza to my Room.” This was the title of the article Lynn Wood was reading. As a teenager studying missions in “Acteens” at her dad’s church, Lynn thought she should put the subject of this articleon her prayer list. His name was Chris Harper. He was a 16-year-old teenager who had suffered kidney failure and was undergoing a kidney transplant at UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. His mother, Virginia, was the donor. His physician father, Oliver Harper, had served as a missionary for 10 years in Kediri, Indonesia, with the family. The article Lynn was reading was in the Alabama Baptist news, and her older sister, Cathy, who worked at the Missionary Training Center in Richmond, Virginia, had shown it to her and the family. As Lynn Wood prayed, she had no idea that she was praying for her own future at the same time.
Surviving Double KidneyFailure
The year was 1984, the year my lifelong battle with chronic kidney failure ended. By then, I was so sick from the toxins building up in my blood stream that I could no longer keep food down and was very short of breath due to toxin related heart failure, resulting in marked fluid retention. I was admitted to the hospital for emergency dialysis and then spent four months on twice weekly dialysis while our family prepared for my kidney transplant. My mother and father both matched as potential donors, but they decided that my mom would be the one to donate since my dad was working to support the family. Mom was willing to do anything to help me recover, even suffer the serious pain that transplant donations at the time caused. Back then, in order to remove a kidney, doctors had to cut through the lower ribs at the harvest site. Every breath, cough, sneeze, or even a giggle would result in agonizing pain. I was so grateful Mom was willing to go through this for me. Both of my dead kidneys were removed because they were a source of recurrent infections.
Love and support for us poured in from all around the globe. The cards and letters I received covered an entire wall in the hospital room! Since I was on a strict salt and protein-restricted tasteless diet, I was particularly fond of a get-well card that blared, “Please send a pizza to my room!” Pizza was forbidden since it was high in protein and salt, hence the title to the Alabama Baptist article written about us at the time.
Finding God In Suffering
However, I wasn’t counting my blessings very well at the time. Actually, I had a lot of serious questions. Why would God allow this to happen to me? I mean, I’d never been a particularly rebellious kid. I tried to do the right things and pretty much stayed on the straight and narrow. My parents were missionaries, for crying out loud! Didn’t that count in God’s book? It was a particularly tough time for me as a Christian.
But I decided I wasn’t going to wallow in self pity. For the first time in my life I read God’s Word from cover to cover, searching for answers to my life questions. I think I appreciated Job’s story most. Here was a guy who was a man of God, yet he suffered tremendously for it. His unwavering faith is a powerful testimony even to this day.
In my spare time, I also learned to play the guitar, dedicating whatever talent God chose to give me back to Him. Eventually, I realized that God was using this event in my life to help me grow spiritually and much later I discovered that He had allowed this event to help me to be a better doctor. What better way to empathize with sick patients than to have been a patient myself? The transplant went well, praise God, and I felt like a new person, ready to serve the Lord in any way He saw fit!
College and Medical School Years
After high school, I enrolled at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. It was in my sophomore year of college when I met a big part of God’s plan for my life, a beautiful freshman young lady, Lynn Wood. I fell hard and fast in love with her. We spent so much time together that I don’t know how in the world I passed all my classes. One day I shared with Lynn about my kidney problems, the transplant, and that I’d have to be on medications the rest of my life to prevent my body from rejecting my kidney. She didn’t seem to care in the least about my medical problems, but she was surprised to realize that I was the young man she’d prayed for way back in her Acteen days. Shortly after I graduated from Samford with a pre-medical degree in 1989, Lynn and I were married.
Lynn had been warned by my father that marrying a kidney transplant patient would be risky. There was always the threat that things could go wrong at any minute. No one knows how long individual transplants will last, but on average they last abo 10 years. That meant that she might be dealing with my having kidney failure within four or five years of our getting married! Little did we both know just how much of a sacrifice this would turn out to be for her!
During medical school at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, I had the wonderful opportunity to return to my second homeland, Indonesia, to do a two month rotation at the very hospital where my father had served as a medical missionary from ‘72 to ‘82. It was a surreal experience, bringing back so many memories andrekindling my love for Indonesia and her people. I promised the Lord that I’d be open to short term missions anytime and anywhere He opened the door.
In 1993 I graduated from medical school and we headed back north to Birmingham, Alabama, for my internal medicine (adult medicine) residency program. Over the next several years we saw God’s blessing in giving us four children, allowing us to live close to family, and allowing me to work alongside my dad, practicing medicine. I also had wonderful opportunities to serve as a short-term medical missionary back to Indonesia after the Tsunami in ‘96 and in Brazil several times. While in Brazil on one of those medical mission trips, I met a young translator who was studying to be a doctor. His name is Saulo, and eventually, we became so close that we have pretty much “adopted” him as part of our family. So, God blessed us with four amazing kids and one “adopted” son, when there had been a very real possibility that I wouldn’t even have been able to have children!
Kidney Deja Vu at 42
Then, in 2008, the floor fell out from under us. My mother’s donated kidney’s life was coming to an end. We saw a transplant specialist at UAB Hospital and she told us that it was time to begin the search for a new donor, as it wouldn’t be long till I’d be in full blown kidney failure again. I felt down, but at the same time thankful, since my transplant had lasted 23 years, more than double the expected kidney survival rate.
My brother, Matthew, and my sister, Jennifer (Almon), both clamored to be next in line to donate a kidney to me, but Lynn also wanted to be the donor. In total, there were over 25 people who signed up asking that they be considered for donating me a kidney! There were offers from family, church members, friends here and abroad, and even donation offers from five of my patients whom I only knew professionally! I was floored by the outpouring of caring and love! It actually became a little comical after my brother, my sister, and my wife all matched as potential kidney donors. It took a lot of hard decision making before we settled on Lynn as the donor. It just didn’t make sense to disrupt two families when it was only necessary to disrupt one.
The second transplant was a great success! The whole experience brought Lynn and me closer in our marriage than ever before. I like to jokingly tell people that we’re one of the few Christian married couples who can truly claim to be “one flesh”! I also like to say that since I still have my mom’s kidney on the right and now my wife’s on the left, I’m now actually 2-3% female by weight percentage! And that explains my new-found love for chocolates why I cry at movies, the emotional change at about the same time every month, and the strong urge I have to get several guys to go to the bathroom with me!
Saulo came to the U.S. from Brazil and took good care of our family while Lynn and I healed up after the transplant. Of course, the whole family pitched in to help us have a speedy recovery and, once again, people from all over the world were praying for us. Despite all the wonderful blessings throughout the whole transplant ordeal, I felt those old nagging questions creeping back into my consciousness. Why would God allow me to go through the transplant a second time? Major surgery at 42 is much more difficult than at 16! I didn’t bounce back quickly as I had the first time. During the long days of pain, I felt myself getting a little angry at God. He is always in control and He can intervene at any time in our suffering. So why doesn’t He always intervene? Once again, I did some deep soul searching.
My soul searching revealed that my journey through sickness both tested and strengthened my faith. After both transplants, I dug deeper into my faith and searched for answers from God’s word, and I came out a stronger Christian on the other side. I learned that we are to trust God, whatever His reasons, when we face sickness and situations we don’t understand.
Having been a very sick patient myself has been an invaluable experience in my life’s work as a physician. I know exactly what it is like to get bad news from a doctor. I know the fears, self doubt, and sometimes even anger at God that can result when one goes through the fire. My experiences give me the insights I need to comfort and counsel patients who face similar serious illnesses, especially fellow Christians who are struggling with their faith. To this day, I’m still learning new things about God and about His purposes in allowing suffering. I don’t claim to have all the answers yet. But I have learned that I can trust God, even when life is at its lowest point.
(Chris and Lynn Harper live in Warrior, Alabama, where Chris practices internal medicine with his father, Dr. Oliver Harper. Chris has served as a medical missionary to the extreme poor in Brazil, and after the tsunami hit Indonesia, served as a volunteer physician in Banda Ache, Sumatra. Chris hopes to be able to serve overseas again within the next few years if his health remains stable. Till then he continues teaching youth at his church and serving his patients throughout the week.)