A simple, sobering act of faith

CATCHING UP WITH...Joyce Roush

Some think her decision to donate a kidney to a Maryland boy was selfless, others crazy. She believes it was God's will.

October 10, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,Sun Staff

When Christ's healing skills drew the multitudes, he told them, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

This description of the Sermon on the Mount from the book of Matthew is one of Joyce Roush's favorite Scriptural passages, and one she has tried to take to heart. The organ donation coordinator from Indiana came to national attention a month ago when she donated one of her own kidneys to a 13-year-old Harford County boy whom she did not know.

Many hailed her act as selfless. Some called her crazy. But beneath the media glare and crush of public opinion, Roush says she learned firsthand what she believes Jesus sought to teach: that in giving of yourself, you receive more than you could ever hope for.

"I really thought in the beginning that this would be no big deal," says Roush, speaking this past week from her Fort Wayne, Ind., home. "My vision when I volunteered to do this was that thousands of people [must] have done this before me."

She was wrong. It turned out that Roush's decision marked only the second time a person had donated an organ to a complete stranger. Spurred by Roush's story, the University of Minnesota announced that a 50-year-old woman -- who had requested anonymity -- had also given a kidney to a stranger just weeks before Roush, 45, donated one of hers to Christopher Bieniek, a teen-ager from Aberdeen.

And as they always do, the media fell in love with the story of the Good Samaritan. For weeks Roush lived her life in snapshots and sound bites.

Cameras were there to record the hugs after Roush met Bieniek and his family for the first time. They were there as surgeons, using a new, less traumatic technique, made a small incision near her belly button to remove her perfectly pink kidney.

Reporters and hospital officials barely breathed at a reunion of Roush and Bieniek after the surgery, looking on as she lovingly caressed his cheek and then grew misty-eyed as he presented her with a photo inscribed "To my other Mom."

Back home in Fort Wayne, the cameras are gone, but things have barely slowed for Roush since the Sept. 7 operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the wake of her donation have come speaking engagements before schoolchildren, church groups and service organizations. Hundreds of letters have poured in, praising Roush for her deed.

And there are the many strangers who now recognize the pretty, stylish mother of five as she tries to return to her everyday routines.

"I think it's just amazing to them that I'm a normal person," Roush says. "That I still go out and buy groceries."

But normal is a relative term; things will never be the same for Roush. A faith-filled woman, she reflects on all that has happened during her quiet moments and says she always knew that God had a plan for her life.

"Often times I've said, 'OK, God. Use me in whatever way you see fit,' " Roush says. "I will always see this as something God called me to do."

Not that she followed that call unquestioningly. Through her work as a coordinator of organ donations at at the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization, she knew more about the process than most people. But Roush says she prayed and prayed and prayed some more after she decided to donate her kidney. The woman who got certified in scuba diving to help her get over her fear of water dove head-first into the idea after attending a seminar on a new, less invasive form of transplant surgery.

Then came the real test. It took more than a year to find a suitable recipient. Roush admits she had some moments of doubt, feelings that maybe she wasn't meant to donate.

"I am not a patient person," Roush says. "The lesson I had to learn was not my will, but thine will be done."

Cynics might view Roush's spiritual journey as a clever marketing ploy. She has, after all, been open about her desire for others to follow her example, and through her work, she knows first-hand the constant problem of supply vs. demand. And indeed, organ donation officials say, there has been an increase in calls and interest in donating as a result of Roush's action.

But there is something in her voice, something in the way she talks about her experience with a mix of surprise and honor at having been "chosen" for such a monumental task, that helps you believe that she believes.

And as public as she has been about her experience, Roush says she does not discuss it at all with the families she works with who are considering donating organs.

"There is no comparing the situations," she says. "I deal with families, who for them, this is the worst moment of their lives. They have just lost a loved one, and they are faced with a huge decision. I would never want them to feel pressured by what I have done."

A crisis overcome

Roush faced her own crisis soon after the transplant. The Sunday after Bieniek's release, his new kidney stopped working because of an adverse reaction to his medication.

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