By Brian Koonce
JEFFERSON CITY – Twitter saved Mike Bronson’s life.
During the first week of June, Bronson was at the peak of an emotional rollercoaster. His fifth potential kidney donor had one more test to clear. After 24 years of living with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), things had gotten much worse in the past 12 months. His kidneys were not only failing to properly filter out the waste in his system, they were leaching protein out of his blood stream before his body could use it. Instead of getting help he was actually being harmed.
“There is no cure for it, but they can slow it with diet and medicine,” he said. “Still, it’s incredibly rare to make it this long with FSGS. The Lord had to have His hand in it. That’s the exception, not the norm.”
Bronson is pastor of West Haven Baptist Church in Tonganoxie, Kan. He is the former associate pastor at Concord Baptist in Jefferson City where, in May 2005, he baptized a young woman named Tonya Brady (now Blythe). Flash forward four years ahead to this summer, when Bronson was in end-stage renal failure and she was following him on Twitter.
He had been on the transplant list since June of 2008, but the waiting list is years long, and transplants have a much higher success rate with a living donor – 80-90 percent after two years versus 50-80 percent.
There was no shortage of people trying to give him a kidney. His wife tried, then his sister and a number of others. One by one each person failed one of a battery of screening tests. His hopes were up one day, dashed the next. But things were looking up again. There was a chance he could have a new kidney by mid-June. First he “tweeted:”
1:20 p.m. June 2 “I am supposed to know something definitive regarding a donor tomorrow.”
4:00 p.m. June 3 “My donor was turned down. I am back to square one.”
Blythe knew from Bronson’s previous tweets that she and Bronson shared the same blood type – O. Back in April, she sent him a message asking what someone would have to do to become a donor. He already had one lined up, but when that one fell through, it was her turn to step up to the plate.
“God just kept opening the doors and she never wavered,” Bronson said.
She got tested, and they were a match. They began working with a transplant center in Kansas City, about 30 miles east of Tonganoxie. But both Bronson and Blythe felt God’s presence that this wasn’t the place for them or “their” kidney. Next on the list was a hospital in Omaha, Neb., and this time both families felt a peace about it.
“They tell you the worst case scenario when they’re preparing you,” Blythe said. “They want you to be sure you really want to do this. But all through it, I never heard anything that really scared me. It’s not a ‘fun’ surgery and the recovery is not fun either, but for the change of life it was going to bring for Mike, it was definitely going to be worth it. There wasn’t any apprehension that came into play at all. We were just very excited.”
Bronson’s condition worsened and he began dialysis in August. He was already in bad shape, and it was very rough on his body. Dialysis can replace some function of the kidneys, but it more or less destroys other organs in the process.
After weeks of final testing and exams – and a scratched first attempt at the end of September – Bronson and Blythe underwent their respective surgeries Oct. 27.
Doctors said the three-hour operations went very smoothly, which relieved Mike’s wife, Tara, and Tonya’s husband, Jon, not to mention the 23 other anxious people in the waiting room. Bringing the story full circle, Jon kept dozens of people in several states posted on Tonya’s and Bronson’s surgeries by constantly using his cell phone to update Twitter and Facebook. (Readers can follow along by searching for “#kidneybeans” at twitter.com.)
Other families in the waiting room were not so fortunate to receive the good news the Bronsons and Blythes did.
“We just kept getting good news but in that same room I met a family that was just bawling,” Jon said.
That family had just heard bad news about a woman needing a liver transplant. Doctors opened her up to perform the surgery, but immediately saw she was too far gone to recover from the operation. There was nothing they could do other than to make her comfortable. She died the next day.
“We got the opportunity to pray with them and try to give them some strength and comfort,” Jon said. “It was a weird thing to be there in a place of such anxiety, but we tried to show God’s love as best we could.”
God’s love. That’s the reason Tonya gives for her donation.
“I’ve thought a lot about the ‘Why?’ answer,” she said. “All of us – not just me – are called to give of ourselves. We’re called to do this in lots of little ways every day: loving people, serving, etc. This was just a bigger demonstration of that, but it’s no bigger than what lots of people do every day as they go about their Christian walk. I was just lucky that things worked out for me. God made it happen.
“It’s amazing the number of people we’ve talked to who know someone going through this process or know someone who needs a transplant. It doesn’t have to be a scary thing. I think it’s very exciting to show God’s love by helping someone live a better life.”
One little tidbit of irony: On the back of Tonya’s driver’s license the organ donor box is blank.
“I just never thought about it before,” she said. “But as soon as I renew it, I’m checking that box. It’s just such a great feeling to help someone live.”
Bronson puts all his faith and gratefulness for a new lease on life in God, but his opinion of Blythe is pretty high, too.
“’No man has greater love than this, than he that lays down his life for another,’” he said. “What can I say? She’s my hero. That’s the most selfless act I can think of. There simply are no words in my vocabulary that can adequately express my gratitude toward her, Jon and the Lord.”
He’s also grateful for the extensive prayer support he has received.
“I had so many people praying for me,” he said. “And there were so many people willing to give me a kidney. While Tonya was in the process, another one came forward just in case I needed it.”
Bronson said West Haven has been “nothing but supportive, loving and in prayer,” and since Concord knew both the people involved, they were very involved in “praying them through” the transplant.
Bronson and his new kidney are not out of the woods yet. Technically, he still has FSGS and his body could reject the healthy kidney at any moment. He suffered an “acute rejection” in the days immediately following the transplant, but things are looking better. As time goes on, the possibility of rejection becomes more and more remote, especially once he makes it beyond the 90-day mark. As of press time, the kidney’s “vital signs” are good.
“I’m still on a ton of powerful drugs that suppress my immune system,” he said. “But what I call ‘kidney sick’ is gone. I can feel my energy coming back.”
The post-transplant recovery process is actually tougher on the healthy donor than on the person receiving the new kidney. It will be six weeks before Blythe can return to work. Much more difficult is that for the time being she can’t lift her 14-month old son, Javan. Bronson hopes to be back in the pulpit at West Haven the first Sunday of December.
What has God taught Bronson through this experience?
“I’ve been sick a great deal of my life,” he said. “I see how fragile life is. Life is short and we need to serve Him to the best of our ability every second.”
The transplant process has been bathed in prayer from the beginning, but Bronson said he wouldn’t mind a few extra prayers.
“Pray for Tonya and her recovery progress,” he said. “Pray that I can fully recover and become accustomed to my medications. May the Lord fill me with the Holy Spirit so I can come back strong as a preacher of the Gospel, as a husband and a father.”