A Special Kind of
Bond in Cleveland
by Camerin Courtney

Toni Whatley could never have guessed a casual acquaintance in her church would be the answer to her prayers for healing from kidney disease. Or that those prayers would also yield one of the best friends she?s ever had. But isn?t that just like God, who delights in exceeding our expectations (Ephesians 3:20).

Twenty-eight years ago, when Toni was a 20-year-old newlywed, she was diagnosed with kidney disease. For many years she was able to manage the illness with a modified diet. But with time and two pregnancies, her kidneys became weaker and finally failed seven years ago.

Dialysis three times a week in a Cleveland dialysis center provided a temporary fix?but at three and a half hours and a night of debilitating exhaustion per session, it consumed Toni?s time and severely restricted her activities.

But without dialysis, a process that cleans toxins from the blood?a vital function healthy kidneys provide?Toni would have died. So while she waited to receive a new kidney through organ donation, she endured five years of dialysis. Though the statistics on organ donation weren?t terribly promising?each year an average of 36,000 people are placed on the waiting list for a new kidney, with only about 8,600 transplants performed?Toni kept waiting, hoping, and praying for a miracle.

Diana Harrill, 48, a self-described "cautious person," was surprised the first time she heard God ask if she?d be willing to be part of his solution for Toni.

Diana had been praying for Toni as part of their church?s 40-day fast and focus on prayer. She felt a kinship to this fellow mom of teens who had the added burden of medical problems. And while she didn?t know what part of the solution God wanted her to be, Diana obediently said yes and continued her prayers for Toni.

After Diana heard God speak to her several more times, the question changed. "On the way to work one morning I felt God ask me, Would you be willing to donate a kidney to Toni?" says Diana, a sense of incredulity still in her voice.

"I put the thought out of my mind. But I felt God ask me this three more times," says Diana. "Finally I asked ?God, is that really you??"

Diana didn?t tell anyone about these startling conversations with God. "I wanted to figure out on my own if this was God or just some crazy idea."

True to her cautious, logical nature, Diana researched kidney transplants. She discovered that almost all people are born with two kidneys and that healthy people only need one. She also learned that with compatible blood types, kidney transplants have a high success rate.

Armed with this information and continued prompting from God. Diana approached her husband, Ivan. When she explained the unconventional idea, he questioned whether or not she was serious. Her response?"Honey, I couldn?t be more serious"?caused great concern.

"It hasn?t been an easy process for him?or for our children either," says Diana. "But Ivan?s never said no or that I was crazy."

Together Diana and Ivan prayed for God?s leading. And Toni continued dialysis?oblivious to the incredible conversations and prayers taking place on her behalf.

Diana finally approached Toni one morning in Sunday school: "I?ve been thinking about donating a kidney to you. Is there someone, perhaps your doctor, I can call to get information about this?"Toni was floored. "You could?ve knocked me over with a feather," she says with a smile.

Not wanting to pressure Toni or put her on the spot, Diana told her she could think about it and call her with the information. Diana figured that after the initial shock wore off, she?d hear from Toni that evening. But two weeks later, Diana still hadn?t heard from Toni.

So she went back to her fellow church choir member and restarted her interest. A week later, Toni handed Diana a piece of paper in Sunday school with her doctor?s phone number on it. While Toni?s hesitancy was confusing at first, it was definitely understandable. Her mother and sister had been ruled out as potential kidney donors because of medical conditions. And four times she?d been contacted about cadaver kidneys, all of which for one reason or another had been given to someone else on the waiting list. Toni was still hopeful, but a bit guarded.

Diana?s call to Toni?s doctor started months of tests. First was the crucial test to see if their blood types matched. The results were positive.

The doctor then sat Diana and Ivan down and explained the transplant procedure. It was major surgery, he warned, involving significant pain and weeks of recovery. If Diana did go through with the transplant, she would have only one kidney left. If her one remaining kidney was ever injured, she could be placed on dialysis herself. And even if the surgeries were successful, Toni?s body could still reject the new kidney within days, weeks, or years. The doctor went so far as to mention the possibility of death for both women?a risk involved with most major surgeries.

Diana was undaunted. "Under normal circumstances, this would have scared me. But instead I just thought, Yeah, this is doable," she says. "That was definitely God?s peace." Ivan was beginning to warm to the idea, but their children?especially their son, Matthew?were still wary.

Next came psychological testing. Diana was the most concerned about this exam, fearing the psychologist would think her crazy for hearing God?s voice and taking on such a risk for a casual acquaintance. But at the end of the interview, he deemed her an excellent candidate. "I quietly said thanks, but inside I was going, ?Yes!?" says Diana with a sparkle in her eye.

Tests on Toni?s immune system and Diane?s kidneys came back positive. All systems were go until Diana?s blood pressure spiked. This put Diana?s healthy kidneys in danger and made the prospect of major surgery too risky. The process was stalled?so Diana prayed.

"I realized I?d taken responsibility on myself for Toni?whether or not she?d be disappointed, whether or not she?d receive my kidney," Diana explains. "I should have left it in God?s hands. When I gave the responsibility back to God, my blood pressure came down almost immediately."

By now Diana?s husband, Ivan, was completely behind her. Their teenage daughter, Sharon, was proud of what her mom was doing for Toni. Matthew, however, still didn?t want his mom to take such a risk. When Diana sat him down and compared what she was doing to the risks he takes as a firefighter and to the fear she feels each time he goes to work, he began to soften. "He understood for the first time why I was doing this and why I wanted his support," says Diana. "He didn?t like it, but he understood."

The church they attended was excited about what God was doing in the lives of two of its members. And nearly a year after the church fast when God first spoke to Diana about giving her kidney to Toni, the surgeries were scheduled.

When Toni and Diana arrived at the hospital at 6 A.M. the day of the surgery?May 5, 1998?they were surprised by the dozens of family and friends who?d gathered to wish them well and pray.

"Words can?t express how much their support meant to us. It was my first realization of how much I need other people," says Diana. "It?s easier for me to give than to receive. Now I see what a blessing being on the receiving end can be!"

At 7:30 A.M., after a group prayer, doctors moved the women into side-by-side operating rooms. Diana?s kidney was removed while Toni?s body was prepared to receive the new, healthy organ. At 9:15 A.M. the kidney was carried next door and placed in Toni?s abdomen, then connected to her blood supply and bladder. A little over three hours into the surgery, the kidney was fully functioning in Toni?s body.

When doctors announced the surgeries were a success and that both women were doing fine, cheers and praises burst forth in the waiting room.

Diana recovered quickly and was sent home within a couple days. Doctors watched Toni closely for signs of her body rejecting Diana?s kidney. When all initial signs were good, they sent her home 3 days after the surgery with an arsenal of 46 anti-rejection pills to take daily. She?ll take daily medication and have regular check-ups the rest of her life, but this is hardly an inconvenience for a woman now free of dialysis.

Two years later, Diana and Toni are healthy, happy?and the dearest of friends.

"My life is pretty much as close to normal as possible," says Toni. "Diana and I, along with our husbands, are planning a weekend getaway to celebrate the second anniversary of the surgeries, and we don?t have to take into consideration where I?ll receive dialysis treatments. What a blessing!"

Probably one of the biggest, and most surprising, blessings of this whole process was that Toni?s husband, Tom, committed his life to Jesus. "To me, that?s been the best gift of all," says Toni.

There have been other surprise blessings: a Dateline show featuring their story, in which both women were permitted to share their belief in God, the chance to share their faith with the Jewish woman who?s the hospital media liaison, and the valuable life lessons Diana and Toni have learned along the way.

"I?ve learned how important a community of Christians really is," says Diana, "I had a tendency before to be a loner in my spiritual life. I never really considered bringing my needs to the church and allowing them to be there for me. But through Toni?s example, I now see that when we?re open and vulnerable, we can be there for each other. That?s the way God wants the church to be."

Diana?s also learned to value her own role in a community of Christians. "I used to think I was the type of person God could never use," she says. "But God?s shown me he wants to use all of us, we?re the ones who prevent him."

Toni?who calls Diana "My Gift"?is so grateful Diana allowed God to use her, and that a beautiful friendship has blossomed in the process. "We?ve been able to talk about very personal things because of all we?ve been through together," says Toni. "Many times God?s given Diana the words of wisdom I?ve needed to hear to keep me going. When I?m talking with her, I can just blurt out what?s going on. I don?t have to dress it up or worry what she?ll think of me. She?s the kind of friend who can sort through all the garbage and love me just the same."

"This isn?t how I would have guessed God would answer my prayers for healing," says Toni. "But he knows exactly what he?s doing. And he?s a maximizing God. He went the route that would get the maximum results?my new kidney, my friendship with Diana, others who?ve been encouraged and exposed to God?s truth and love. God is just amazing. We?ve experienced that firsthand."

Reprinted by permission, Today?s Christian Woman.