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July 8, 2013 | Volume 88, Number 18


photo: A view of the church and adjacent parish hall where Mass had been celebrated during the church’s restoration.
Bruce McComb and Father Goertz at St. Timothy’s in Tappahannock.

Fr. Goertz gives kidney to save life of parishioner

Bruce McComb says he owes his life to his pastor, Father Jonathan Goertz of St. Timothy Parish in Tappahannock.

His statement, voiced in strong admiration, is not far from the truth.

Mr. McComb, 60, was in desperate need of a kidney transplant. He had been on dialysis for three and a half years and had retired at age 54 because of kidney disease. He previously had received a kidney from his wife, Mimi, in 2002 which was deemed to be a match, but his body later rejected it when he developed sepsis after what he called “a botched hernia surgery.”

In the meanwhile, Father Goertz, 31, had explored the possibility of donating a kidney to someone who needed one and was the right match.

“I had already looked into being a donor before this,” he told The Catholic Virginian.

After contacting the National Kidney Registry, he was told he would have to undergo some testing.

“They wanted a doctor to do a few basic tests to see if I could be an eligible donor to anybody,” Father Goertz said, adding that the likelihood of finding someone who would be compatible with his kidney was good. In March he went for tests at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.

“They told me ‘Once we put you into the system, there are 100,000 Americans who are on the waiting list and you are going to match with somebody,’” the priest said.

He had learned of Mr. McComb’s need for a kidney and wanted to help him if possible.

“It always strikes me when I meet somebody who has any kind of need — physical, spiritual or emotional — is it possible that I could be the person who can respond to this need,” Father Goertz said.

He then spoke to Mr. McComb after Mass on Palm Sunday expressing his wish to help him.

“I’d just gone to MCV to see if I could be a donor at all,” Father Goertz said. “I came back and told Bruce that ‘I’m an eligible donor and I’d like to see if I can give a kidney to you.’”

“That blew me away,” Mr. McComb said.

Retired the past six years, he had been trying the past four years to get a new kidney. Six different people, including family members and friends, had been tested to see if they would be a match, but that did not turn out to be the case.“I never lost faith that I would get a kidney, but I found it frustrating that there were six people who had been tested and for one reason or another, it didn’t work out,” Mr. McComb said.

Surgeons at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore had even told him that he would be a candidate for a cadaver kidney transplant. He had gone to Baltimore and was in the operating room prepped for the surgery, but doctors found the matching kidney of the deceased person would not work.

Mr. McComb reflected on Father Goertz’s offer.

“God aligned the stars for me to be at church and for Father Jonathan to be not only my pastor, but one that I had no antibodies against,” Mr. McComb said. “He was a perfect match and he was unwaveringly willing to do it.

“I still find it very thought-provoking that he and I would meet in the small town of Tappahannock and, by the grace of God, I happened to be helped physically, and received spiritual help also,” he added.

Both men had to undergo more medical tests before transplant surgery could be performed.

“MCV recommended that Johns Hopkins perform the transplant because of my past surgical history,” Mr. McComb said, adding that the surgeon was Dr. Robert Montgomery of Johns Hopkins, who is a Catholic.

The two men and Mr. McComb’s wife and two children traveled to Baltimore on June 10 in order to be in place for simultaneous surgery the next day, June 11.

“The most important moment came the night before the surgery,” Mrs. McComb said. “Father Jonathan came with the oils and gave the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. He invited me and our children to join him in the laying on of hands for Bruce’s healing.

“It left Bruce in a state of absolute calmness for the surgery,” she added.

“It’s rare that the donor anoints the receiver,” Mr. McComb said, smiling.

Surgery the next day went smoothly.

“Our surgeons have been the pioneers of laparascopic kidney removal,” Father Goertz said, adding that he was in the hospital for three days before being released. Mr. McComb was released from the hospital after six days.

Father Goertz was visited by fellow priests and friends from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore where he had been a theology student before being ordained a priest June 5, 2010.

“I feel great,” he said, pointing out that he had what is considered “significant abdominal surgery.”

“I would say even from the day after surgery, I stopped dealing with pain,” Father Goertz said. “I’ve just had discomfort at the incision sites.” The priest acknowledged that some friends and family members had cautioned him about donating his kidney. He views their thoughts as loving concern for another loved one.

“As a pastor, as a shepherd, it is irresponsible to ignore his health and not tend to the needs of his flock,” Father Goertz said.

“I kept asking God and kept asking the doctors, doing my own research, and it was confirmed over and over and over that I would have some temporary impact from the surgery but that there would be no adverse effects on my life in ministry with one kidney.

“Maureen Bell and the entire team at MCV were extremely encouraging and, without sugarcoating the risks of surgery, really helped me appreciate the significance of moving forward with the donation process,” Father Goertz said.

He had consulted Msgr. Mark Richard Lane, Vicar General and Vicar for Clergy, before agreeing to donate the kidney and had gotten his best wishes.

“A priest, even from before the time of Christ, has been defined as one who offers sacrifice,” Father Goertz said. “The most important way I offer sacrifice is to stand at the altar and participate in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

“But I also sacrifice for others. My kidney donation to Bruce is one of the most obvious, but it’s certainly not the only way.

“All Christians are baptized priest, prophet and king, which means offering sacrifice is a real aspect of the life of every Christian.

“Not all of us will be called to be living organ donors, but we are all called to make real, significant, difficult, maybe painful sacrifices in some way. We constantly discern what that means to each of us.”

The reward of Father Goertz’s sacrifice is obvious to Mimi McComb.

“He saved Bruce’s life,” she said.

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