Organ donation: Two priests talk about gift of a lifetime

The story begins like this: On the morning of June 7, Father David Grundman woke up, said his prayers and began thinking about the day ahead. It was not unlike most mornings except for the fact that he was in a hospital room at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, preparing to undergo major surgery.

This is where the story takes a suspenseful twist. You might wonder what illness or injury had befallen Father Grundman, pastor of St. Michael Parish in St. Cloud and St. Joseph Parish in Waite Park.

Those who know him well know the 55-year-old priest is in peak physical condition, always eating well, exercising regularly, full of energy.

Here is where the plot begins to thicken. Insert new character: Father Peter Kirchner, pastor of the parishes of St. Francis de Sales in Belgrade, St. Donatus in Brooten and Sts. Peter and Paul in Elrosa.

On Divine Mercy Sunday in 2013, Father Kirchner was spending time with some of his brother priests at a cabin on Lake Osakis when he began to feel extremely ill. Father Mark Stang drove Father Kirchner to Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria.

Fathers Peter Kirchner, left, and David Grundman met recently at St. Michael Church in St. Cloud to talk about their experiences.(Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)
Fathers Peter Kirchner, left, and David Grundman met recently at St. Michael Church in St. Cloud to talk about their experiences.(Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

As doctors and medical personnel were treating him, Father Kirchner recalls hearing phrases like “kidney shutting down,” and “medically-induced coma.” Father Kirchner was transported by ambulance to St. Cloud Hospital where doctors worked diligently to save his kidney.

A week and a half later, he woke up in a hospital room where his sister, Ann, asked him if he knew where he was.

“I said, ‘Yes, I’m in Alexandria. I’m in Douglas County Hospital,”’ Father Kirchner recalled. “She said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re in the St. Cloud Hospital. You’re in intensive care and you almost died on us a few times. You could still die.’ That was a shock.”

Father Kirchner was suffering from congestive kidney failure — a condition that runs in his family and affected his father, one sister and a cousin. His situation was complicated by a case of pneumonia.

“I had no idea it was that bad,” Father Kirchner said. “I was hoping to keep my kidneys going for a few more years, but the diuretics they had to give me to save me damaged my remaining kidney.”
Following his hospitalization, Father Kirchner began dialysis three times a week, four hours each session. He also underwent tests at the University of Minnesota before being added to the list of more than 100,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant. He was told the wait would be between three and seven years.

During that time, he moved to Sauk Rapids, where he lived in the chaplain’s house next to the Poor Clare Monastery and served as their chaplain while continuing treatment in St. Cloud.

And here’s where the two priests’ chapters intersect. When Father Grundman, who has been a friend of Father Kirchner for almost 20 years, heard the news, he immediately began tests to see if he was a match.

“Mine wasn’t a match,” Father Grundman said. “Then they talked to me about the non-directed donor program.”

According to the University of Minnesota’s website, the medical center has performed more than 8,000 kidney transplants. The center has two donor options — a living donor or a deceased donor. Most of the living donors have been directed donors — donors who have a direct connection with the recipient, like family or friends.

In 1999, the university became the first hospital in the United States to perform a kidney transplant from a non-directed living donor — a donor who gives a kidney to someone on a waiting list that he or she does not know.

“It’s actually beautiful,” Father Grundman said. “It’s a gift of life. If you come forward and do something like this, it can have such ramifications, just having that openness to do it.”

While Father Grundman was running through the mill of tests to become a non-directed donor, Father Kirchner, after 15 months of dialysis, was notified that a deceased donor was a perfect match for him. In July 2014, Father Kirchner underwent a successful kidney transplant.

“I was surprised because it was a 100 percent match,” Father Kirchner said. “I think the important thing for people to know is that there are 100,000 people on this waiting list. Most of those people are on dialysis. Thousands of people die on dialysis every year waiting for a kidney. If people are healthy and they can donate a kidney, I hope this might encourage them to think about it.”

Father Grundman echoed Father Kirchner’s thoughts.

“It seems as if we got an extra kidney and God is saying, ‘You’ve got two, but you don’t need two. You can give one to someone else,’” Father Grundman said.

While waiting to become a donor, Father Grundman read up on other transplant stories and watched YouTube videos of others who became donors. One of the stories he watched had a powerful impact on him.

“In one video, this person said, ‘I just felt when God calls me home and I come before him, if I would have two kidneys, my life would not have been complete.’ That really connected with me. That’s where I was at.”

This is where the story goes back to the beginning. At the end of May, Father Grundman received a call from the U of M. They had found a match and they needed him to be at the hospital at 5 a.m. on June 7.

“There was no apprehension,” Father Grundman said. “By this time, I was ready and I just wanted to do it. I’m so thankful that there was a match and someone could use it,” he said.

Immediately after they removed his kidney, it was on a plane by 11 a.m., en route to a hospital in Washington, D.C. Later that day, his kidney was transplanted into a single, 50-year-old male. Due to privacy, that is all the information Father Grundman was given.

“That’s what’s so great about what Father David did. He did it anonymously for a person in need,” Father Kirchner said.

Although it was anonymous, both the donor and the recipient can work through a case coordinator to send messages to the other. It is up to the individual if he or she wishes to respond.

“I sent a card to the recipient, just to tell him I was praying for him and to tell him about my health,” Father Grundman said. “I hope one day he might respond back.”

Father Grundman was the 99th non-directed donor at the U of M since the program began in 1999.

Later that same day, the center reached the 100th milestone when a 21-year-old medical student also gave his own selfless gift.

“I so admire this young man who I haven’t met,” Father Grundman said. “I think it’s a reminder for all of us to raise the bar. What should we be doing differently? I think we see in our world that we’ve all become very selfish. There, to see him so young, he gave completely of himself. That’s what life is all about, eternal life.”

He struggled with whether or not to tell his parishioners about the upcoming surgery in case he would change his mind or something would fall through at the last minute. But then he realized he needed their prayerful support.

“I just know having prayer warriors in my corner that anything is possible for God,” he told them.

Father Grundman was surprised at how many of his parishioners shared stories of family and friends who had received transplants. One parishioner had a daughter who received a heart transplant years ago and was inspired to connect with her daughter’s donor’s family.

organ-donationRecovery was just a couple days in the hospital followed by up to four weeks of “taking it easy.”

Retired priest Father Laurn Virnig helped in his absence.

Some have asked Father Grundman if he’s worried that something could go wrong with his remaining kidney.

“I just don’t think about that. It comes back to ‘Jesus, I trust in you,’ and Matthew 25:40, ‘Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.’ It’s a statement of faith. I think if we live in that cloud of ‘what if,’ you’re not going to be stepping out in faith. I don’t concern myself with that,” he said.

Was the gift of the kidney the climax of the story? Some would say yes, but Father Grundman says no — it’s just the beginning.

“The beauty for kidney donation in particular is the other kidney expands and takes up where the other one left off. How beautifully the body compensates for that donation. It’s like the Body of Christ, when one is weak, another is strong,” he said.

Both priests are committed to raising awareness about all those who are still waiting. They said they are both willing to speak to groups and parishes about their experiences.

“I encourage everybody to look into this possibility, to pray about it and talk to their families and friends,” Father Grundman said. “I think it’s through our stories that people realize we are all connected. We may not all be able to give a kidney, but we can all look at how we can help our fellow neighbors.”

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the editor of The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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