Don’t call Heather Robinson a hero. She wants no thanks, no glory, no attention. She’s telling her story about giving a kidney to Jennifer Hinton, a nurse in her pediatrician’s office, only to illustrate the goodness of her God in a time it seems, for many, he can seem very far away.
It’s the story of seeing a beautiful woman in deep need, praying for her healing and realizing God is calling you to be the answer.
For more than 20 years, polycystic kidney disease had worn down Jennifer Hinton. By 2013, she needed dialysis. Three nights a week for four hours at a time, Jennifer would sit as all of her blood left her body through a fistula in her arm, circulated through toxin-removing filters and then returned to her.
“It was real hard,” says Jennifer, 59, of Louisburg. “But somehow all along I just felt like it wasn’t going to be a way of life for me. I felt like it was temporary.”
Heather knew Jennifer only through the five-minute increments it took to get vital signs and answers to routine medical questions when one of her four children visited their doctor in Wake Forest. During an April 2014 appointment, though, Heather felt led to introduce herself and to ask Jennifer whether she needed prayer.
“It was like time stood still,” says Heather, 41. “She shared with me how her husband had passed, how she had been diagnosed with kidney disease and was on dialysis, how she worked 40 hours a week, and three days a week she’d leave work and be at dialysis four hours and go home alone and how hard that was for her.”
The women held hands and prayed. Over the next few months, Heather sent Jennifer flowers, made goodie baskets, found a 5-pound bag of the nurse’s favorite gummy bears to let her know she was loved.
In October, Jennifer shared that she had been placed on the kidney transplant list. In North Carolina, about 3,300 people are waiting for an organ, more than 1,900 of them African-American – with 95 percent, like Jennifer, waiting for a kidney.
“God would wake me up in the middle of the night praying for her,” says Heather, whose husband, Shaun, is a student at Southeastern Theological Seminary. “She was on my mind constantly.”
Those prayers began to make Heather feel uneasy because she felt like she was asking that someone with a compatible kidney die.
When the answer came to her that maybe she could give Jennifer a kidney, it felt like craziness. But then God kept putting stories about kidneys in her path, she says, and she asked a friend in New Jersey to pray for discernment for her.
In December, that friend told Heather of a guest speaker at her church, a pastor from Zimbabwe who said before he began his sermon that he felt like someone needed to hear that six months earlier he had received a kidney from a live donor, a young man in his church. It was Heather’s affirmation.
“Two or three years ago, if God had brought this to me, I would have dismissed it,” Heather says. “But he had me at the point in our relationship that I knew what his voice sounded like, and I couldn’t say no to it.”
On Jan. 5, Heather’s birthday, she invited Jennifer to lunch. Jennifer revealed that she felt like God had the perfect person with the perfect kidney picked out for her.
“Jennifer, I think that kidney is mine,” Heather replied. “I think God wants me to give you my kidney.”
Jennifer tried for an hour to convince Heather of all the reasons the idea was absurd. What if your other kidney fails? What if one of your children ends up needing your kidney?
Jennifer said she needed to pray about it. She asked her only child, Chris, 33, to pray.
It took a week, but Jennifer arrived at peace about Heather’s gift.
“God wanted me to have a testimony to glorify him,” she says. “He works in mysterious ways. Who would have thought this would happen this way?”
3,300 The number of North Carolinians waiting for an organ donation
53 The percentage of those waiting who are African-American
21.4 The percentage of North Carolinians who are African-American
4 The number of times more likely an African-American is than a Caucasian to be on dialysis
In March, Heather had blood drawn. The women were compatible – not perfectly matched in antigens but well-matched. In May, she had two days of testing, physical and psychological, that could have doomed the donation, but on June 8 Heather got word that the UNC Health Care transplant committee had approved it.
She drove to Jennifer’s office. The only parking space available was the one next to Jennifer’s car.
“I got out of my car and stood in front of her, and I got to say to her, ‘No more dialysis. No more dialysis.’”
Jennifer fell into her arms, crying, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, father.”
The fact that Jennifer was on her way to dialysis made the moment even sweeter. She had never been able to sleep, read or watch TV during those long hours like other patients did. On this night, rather than boredom and exhaustion as companions she would have thankfulness and joy.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Jennifer says. “And she brought me flowers. She was a match for me, and she brought me flowers. I was just like my, my, my, my, my. I was overwhelmed.”
On the days leading up to the July 7 surgery, when Heather found herself afraid, God gave her the right Bible verses, the right sermons about blessing others, the right songs at church to affirm her decision.
“He was saying, ‘Heather, this is what I’m asking you to do. I knew when you were born that when you were 41 years old, you would be donating your kidney to Jennifer.’
“This was never mine,” Heather says.
The last time the women had their kidney functions checked in August, Jennifer’s creatine levels were better than Heather’s. They like to joke that Heather gave away her best kidney.
And to what a wondrous person she gave it. In the hours she used to spend each week tethered to dialysis, Jennifer hopes to volunteer in nursing homes, helping to feed the residents because they don’t always get all of the food they need from busy nurses, she says.
“It speaks volumes to who she is,” Heather says.
And Heather’s willingness to endure major surgery, sport four scars and lose her left kidney so that she could be an answered prayer speaks volumes about who she is.
If only more of us were so unheroic.
Wheeler: 919-829-4825, firstname.lastname@example.org, @burgetta_nando
Because of improvements over the past 10 years in anti-rejection medications, organ donors and recipients do not have to be perfectly compatible in regard to human leukocyte antigens, according to Amy Woodard, living donor coordinator at UNC Health Care. Most important is that the donor be healthy and have a compatible blood type.
“We see more and more acquaintances and strangers and colleagues donating to one or another,” she said, with living donations between races and ethnicities increasing as well.
Organ recipients such as Jennifer Hinton are monitored every month for the rest of their lives for signs of rejection or infection, she said. On average, a donated kidney will last 10 to 12 years, she said, so many recipients find themselves on the transplant list more than once.
One patient lived with a donated kidney 38 years, though, before the organ started to decline and he received a second transplant.
Become a donor
Everyone is eligible to join the NC Donor Registry, regardless of medical history or health habits. Find it at donatelifenc.org/