Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 19 edition of The Criterion, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis. It is reprinted with permission.
Like many parents, Rebeca Barcenas had this one overwhelming prayer that she continually shared with God.
She longed to be the best mother she could be to her children, to have the normal family life that her kidney failure had taken away from her.
After being on dialysis for seven years, Barcenas knew that her best chance of having her prayer answered was to receive a kidney transplant. So she was touched when her parish priest at the time, Pastor Christopher Wadelton, told her he was pursuing the possibility of being an organ donor for her, and encouraging others at St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis to do the same.
She was also stunned and thrilled when the extensive testing showed that Father Wadelton was a compatible match for her, beating long-shot odds.
So on the morning of May 14, the 37-year-old Barcenas and the 54-year-old Wadelton prepared for transplant surgeries that would change their lives, connect them forever and show the depth of their faith.
“I think he is an angel of God that God sent to me and my family—to heal so much pain and suffering that we had been through,” she says. “To sacrifice an organ, in this case a kidney, to another person, I think it’s beautiful.
“What he gave me was not only a kidney, but faith in God—and many reasons to live to enjoy myself and my family without pain or fear. I thank
Father Chris for what he has done for us and, most of all, God for hearing our prayers—because without God, we’re nothing.”
Wadelton, now the pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus, had his own prayer in donating a kidney to Barcenas.
Making the connection
The priest’s connection with Barcenas, her husband Rafael Ventura and their two daughters began when he was pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish from 2013-19.
“I’ve know the family a little over six years. They were active members of the Spanish community in Masses, and they were a family at Holy Cross Central School. I really cared for their entire family.”
Wadelton knew that Barcenas’ kidney failure was so severe that she was on dialysis for about five hours a day for three days a week. He also knew that schedule robbed her of the energy she wanted to devote to her children, 16-year-old Jennifer and 9-year-old Carmen.
“One of my main motivations for helping Rebeca was her two daughters,” he says. “I knew that Rebeca’s illness and dialysis added a lot of stress to their family, and occupied a lot of time for Rebeca each week. I prayed that I could do something to help alleviate some stress and give her more time with her children.”
In a way, what Wadelton wanted for Barcenas and her daughters was the same relationship that he and his four siblings had with their mother growing up. She was a stay-at-home mom after a career in the newspaper world.
“My mother was and is a very important person in my life, and a constant presence for me and my siblings,” he says. “There was a great sense of security knowing that mom was always at home if we needed something.
“Being a stay-at-home mom also allowed her to be very active with school and parish activities. It was a great blessing to have her so active in our lives as youngsters. I suppose I naturally wanted others to have that same blessing as well.”
So he looked into becoming a living donor when Barcenas went on the transplant list in 2018.
The gift of life
Dr. William Goggins has a wealth of knowledge about kidney transplants from his 20 years of experience performing such surgeries.
“An average of 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant a year. And only 16,000 kidney transplants are done a year in this country,” says Goggins, director of adult and pediatric kidney transplantation at IU Health in Indianapolis.
He also knows the amazing difference that transplants can make in someone’s life: “A transplant is one of those rare times in surgery when you can cure somebody. Through the gift of transplants, you basically restore people to being fully healthy.”
Goggins has a deep appreciation for individuals who agree to donate their organs upon their sudden death—and the families who give their consent.
“In deceased organ transplants, tragedies happen,” he says. “And the only way you can have something good come out of it is through donations so four or five people can have their lives changed.”
Still, he leaves no doubt that living donors are the preference. Living donors are healthy, which generally leads to their transplanted organs functioning better and lasting longer. It also helps that “the organ is transplanted into the patient shortly after being removed from the donor.”
Those factors were in play on the morning of May 14 when Father Wadelton and Barcenas both awaited their surgeries.
Against the odds
For Barcenas, it was a morning of mixed emotions. Dr. Goggins recalls her having “a lot of apprehension” coming into the surgery. There was also the sense of overwhelming gratitude for Wadelton.
That feeling had never left her since the day of Jennifer’s 2018 graduation from Holy Cross Central School, the day when the priest told her he would try to donate a kidney to her.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Father Chris is an amazing person and a very good priest that worries for his people and his community and for all human rights. He always tries to help in whatever way he can without wanting anything in return.”
For Wadelton, it was another time in his life when he believed God had led him to this moment. And still he was amazed that it was happening.
“The odds that we were compatible in both blood type and tissue type were a very small percentage,” he says. “There were four different stages of testing along the way. It took close to 1 1/2 years of testing for everything to go forward.”
Then when the transplant was scheduled to take place earlier this year, it was delayed because of the coronavirus crisis.
Even with all the testing and the setbacks, Wadelton kept increasing his efforts to be in prime physical shape for the surgery.
“I’m a runner and a biker,” says the priest, noting that he runs about four miles two to three times a week and bikes about 12-15 miles once a week. “I thought I was in good shape, and I worked even harder in the past six months to get ready for this.”
‘We all have gifts we can share’
His surgery at IU Health’s University Hospital began first, an operation to remove one of his two kidneys that lasted about 3 1/2 hours. The transplant of his kidney into Barcenas’ body followed, lasting about 3 1/2 hours for her.
Goggins summed up the transplant with this prognosis: “She’s doing great. I told her, ‘You have a normal kidney function. You can have ice cream. You can have pizza. You can have orange juice. Everything they tell you that you can’t have when you have kidney failure, you can now have.’ She had a big smile.”
Then the doctor shared his praise for Wadelton.
“He’s an example of truly the kind of person who donates a kidney—completely unselfish. Just the giving of self to help someone else is truly remarkable. Donors are such exceptional people.
“The beautiful thing about a living donor is it helps two people. He’s helped her, and he’s helped another person as well because you’ve taken her off the transplant list. She no longer needs a deceased donor.”
During the two days that Wadelton recovered in the hospital, he made visits to Barcenas’ room to check on her. The first visit was an emotional one.
“She, her kids and her husband were all appreciative,” the priest says. “I was very relieved to see that her body was functioning properly with the new kidney, that there was no rejection. For me, it was good seeing a good thing come to a good end.”
Wadelton also praised “the great team” at IU Health. And he hopes that sharing his and Rebeca’s story will lead to new beginnings for other people who are awaiting transplants.
“I really didn’t want to go public with this, but in talking through this with my living-donor advocate, she thought it would inspire others to be living donors,” he says. “We all have gifts we can share. Maybe God is calling you to do this.”
‘I really felt God’s presence’
Since his return to St. Bartholomew Parish, Wadelton has been celebrating a full schedule of daily and weekend Masses.
“I continue to feel very good. My energy level is almost back to 100 percent,” he says. “The parish staff has been great. They have been taking care of things around the parish and ‘mothering’ me.”
Through it all, Wadelton has felt uplifted by the prayers and the tremendous support of the members of both St. Bartholomew and St. Philip Neri parishes.
“I have received lots of cards and notes of support and encouragement,” he says. “It’s really meant something to me when people said they were keeping us in their prayers.”
One of his prayers now is that “Rebeca and her family will be blessed with good times and good health for many years.”
As a mother, Barcenas says that Wadelton’s gift to her is also a gift to her family.
She notes that for most of Carmen’s life her younger daughter has seen her mom as being “tired and in pain” while Jennifer has had to “mature a lot faster” because of taking care of her younger sister. Now, Barcenas has hopes of being the mom she’s always wanted to be for her girls.
The girls have high praise for Wadelton.
“I think of Father Chris as a friend and as family,” Jennifer says. “As a priest, he has helped me understand more of God.”
Carmen says, “He is kind and very brave. He’s like a superhero.”
Their dad and Barcenas’ husband Rafael shares this thought: “He has given us the example to be more humble and to support other people and families whenever they need it, without receiving anything in return.”
Wadelton has a different perspective.
“I just feel I’ve done what God has put before me. It’s a minor miracle that we worked out to be compatible. I really felt God’s presence through the whole thing. I felt he was driving it. I was just saying yes to what was sitting in front of me.”