Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Tim Carlin lives by the belief that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Over the summer, Carlin, a fifth-grade teacher at Roanoke Catholic School, gave one of his kidneys to someone he might never meet.
It began last fall, when his wife, Mary Henold, told him that the wife of a colleague at Roanoke College, where Henold teaches American history, had advanced kidney disease and needed a transplant.
“Mary was interested in being a donor and I thought, ‘I could do that, too,’” Carlin said.
They got on the donor list. After the initial screening by the University of Virginia Medical Center in the spring, they learned that Henold was not a match, but Carlin was.
He and Henold learned more about the surgery and were confident in its safety. They prayed about it and decided to proceed.
“I thought, as Catholics, if we’re expected to give someone a coat if we have two, how much more important is this?” said Carlin, 45. “If someone is in need, they’re in need.”
During Easter break he went to the university for testing, which included urine and blood work to screen for anything that could cause a recipient’s body to reject the organ. It also included a CT scan to verify that Carlin actually had two kidneys. Although it is rare, some people have only one, and this is usually how they find out, he said.
Carlin knew another donor further up the list might come through for Henold’s friend’s wife. As it turned out, the woman received a kidney in May from someone in Blacksburg.
Although Carlin was free to drop off the list, he told the transplant staff, “At this point, if there’s a need, feel free to give it to whomever.”
So, they put his name in the system as a “nondirected donation” and said that because the need is so great, he could come to the University of Virginia Medical Center for surgery whenever he wanted, and the kidney would be given to someone. Because of his teaching schedule, it had to happen early in the summer to allow time for recovery.
When Carlin learned there was a matched patient, he returned for more testing and gave more blood for backup. On Thursday, July 5, he had the surgery to remove his kidney. He came through just fine, he said, and is back at school and nearly healed.
He also was happy to learn that because he was a healthy, living donor, his removed kidney began working right away to produce urine on the operating table. Kidneys from deceased donors can take several days to come alive again, he explained.
While Carlin might never meet the person whose life he saved, he said it makes no difference. If the recipient wishes to meet him someday, that would be fine. He thinks about and prays for the recipient and has been told the person is doing well, and that’s enough.
“Nobody could possibly ‘earn’ a kidney,’” he said. “It’s something that can be given freely. It’s what God has done for us in the same way with his grace.”
He was surprised to learn cases like his are unusual and that he was the only nondirected donation at UVA this year. Most people who donate kidneys do so because of a friend or relative in need. Carlin said he is glad he was able, because of his health, age and work schedule, to do it.
He is also a designated organ donor after his death. “Any parts of me are fair game,” Carlin said with a laugh. “He’s one in a million,” said Henold.
Because Carlin couldn’t lift anything heavy, e.g., full trash bags, laundry baskets—for many weeks after the surgery, their children, Ella, 11, and Hank, 8, have helped more around the house. They also gave up a summer trip to Philadelphia but didn’t mind.
“They understood that we had to do this so someone could live,” Henold said. “They learned from Tim that this is what people do for each other.”
Patrick Patterson, Roanoke Catholic’s principal and head of school, said that although the low-key Carlin never sought attention and didn’t even tell the school at first, his act of generosity will have a ripple effect of inspiring others, especially students.
“He’s a visible reminder of what Jesus asks of us: to be and do more for others,” Patterson said. “We’re put on this earth to do something more and have a servant’s heart.”
Two of Carlin’s former students, Thomas Myers, 12, and Sophie Wright, 13, are in seventh grade now but they recalled their fifth-grade teacher fondly. Carlin was a fun and creative teacher (“He’s a 10 in creativity,” Wright said). They described a card game the class played with no instruction; students had to observe and figure out the rules as they were playing. Myers said it taught them to think and learn as they went along.
As their religion teacher as well, Carlin emphasized the Golden Rule. “He taught us to be kind to everyone and treat others like you want to be treated yourself,” Wright said.
“He’s a good person, definitely,” Myers added. “He’s someone who is very close to God.”
Carlin began the new school year in August and feels fine. He’s a little embarrassed by the attention he’s received but also recognizes it as a chance to witness for his faith.
These days, he said, he’s been thinking about the Scripture passage of Luke 17:10: “We have done what was our duty to do.”
“I am a servant,” he said. “I’ve done no more than I’ve been asked to do.”