My interviews today are with Walt Erwin, double kidney transplant survivor and with his living donor, Shannon Wilburn. Shannon is the wife of The Park Church’s Preaching Minister, Mitch Wilburn and also the co-founder of Just Between Friends, a franchising company with 150 locations domestically.
March 27, 2019
Walt, tell us about your early experiences before the initial transplant. When did you first realize that something was wrong?
I was in my late twenties. I had a history of high blood pressure. Now it was steadily going up. However, I didn’t really feel all that bad then. Finally, I had a kidney x-ray that showed what looked like a cyst. The doctors said they would watch it. Another x-ray 6 months later showed that it had grown significantly. I had a surgery to drain “the cyst,” but the doctors now were calling it “a tumor,” adding that it could be cancer. My doctor decided it would be best to remove that kidney, since my other kidney appeared healthy. After a second doctor agreed, I had the kidney removed. Shortly afterwards I began retaining fluids and was diagnosed with nephritis, a type of chronic kidney disease caused from inflammation.
What type of treatment did you have for the nephritis?
I was given prednisone, but it didn’t work.
What did your doctors do then?
About a year after my first kidney was removed, I began experiencing severe fatigue and my creatinine levels went up to 6 (normal is 1.1-1.3). I was then diagnosed with kidney failure and put on dialysis for 4 hours 3 times per week. I was also put on the transplant list. Tell us more about the organ donation process.
They first looked among my family-of-origin. My mother and brothers were all tested. My older brother was the only match. He agreed to donate his kidney. By this time, I had been on dialysis for about 14 months.
How did you feel emotionally about your illness and about the transplant process?
I was happy to have a way to get off the dialysis. When I was sitting in the dialysis center one day, another older man there laughed and told me how lucky I was to be on dialysis, because I would never have to work again. He said, “You’re fully disabled now. That means you can draw Social Security and kick back!” This really angered me. I was the youngest guy in the room - a young husband and father of 2 kids with another on the way. I had just started my own company, with a house to pay for. I had no intentions of staying disabled and hooked up to this machine if there were any other options open to me. The transplant gave me a chance to get my life back!
Explain briefly how the first transplant went?
It went well. As soon as I was off the machine, my new kidney began working immediately. The pain wasn’t that bad. My brother had more pain than I did. I only took light pain medicines for a few days after surgery.
What medications did you have to take after the transplant?
I had to take immunosuppressants to prevent rejection of the transplanted kidney.
How long did this kidney function well for you?
I had a good run. About 35 years. Once you have a transplant, your body begins to make antibodies that eventually cause rejection. No matter how you suppress these antibodies, the body’s own immune system wins! It’s just a matter of time.
What symptoms did you have when the first donated kidney failed?
My creatinine levels went back up again. I had fever, nausea, and felt bad all over like I had the flu.
How did you find the second donor?
It was through my church, The Park Church, in Tulsa, where I’m a member. My family and other close friends were tested, and they didn’t match. Then my wife, Kathy, asked for prayers in one of her church groups, and Shannon Wilburn was there. We didn’t know her very well then. We had gone to another branch in Jenks, Oklahoma before the consolidation of our church this fall. After Shannon heard Kathy’s request for prayer, she told us she began feeling moved by the Lord to donate her kidney. Later I talked to Mitch, her husband, who is also our pulpit minister at Park. I told him that no one else had matched. He told me, “If Shannon has been moved by the Lord to donate her kidney, it will match!” And you know what? Shannon did match! I had the second transplant on December 21, 2017. Although Shannon’s kidney was smaller than mine, the procedure went well. So far, my body has accepted the kidney.
Tell us how you are doing today? What types of follow-up do you have now?
I’m doing well. I have labs once a month, which, if everything goes well, should decrease to 3-4 times per year. These are to monitor my kidney function numbers. I also still need to take the immunosuppressants to fight rejection. If I have any symptoms of rejection, such as fever or nausea or vomiting or flu-like symptoms, I need to call my doctor. Another thing we watch for is viruses. They can trigger the immune response and cause rejection as well. How important is the kidney donation program to people with kidney disease?
Extremely important. That’s why I volunteered and served on the board of the Oklahoma Chapter of the National Kidney Foundation, raising transplantation awareness and awareness of the importance of kidney donation.
Share with us how your faith supported you through all these health challenges.
The Lord helped me all the way through. He was my Mentor and my Guide. I felt His Holy Spirit living in me and working in my life. When my first kidney failed, I was the number-two-man in a new company we had just started. I was traveling all the time. Because of my work, I missed so many family activities, and we were going to have to move from Tulsa to Denver. Then one night, when I came into my 7-year-old son, Matt’s room to tell him good night, I found him sleeping with his T-ball bat.
I was curious about this, so I asked him, “Matt, why are you sleeping with your T-ball bat?”
He told me, “Well, Dad you’re gone all the time, so I have to protect my mom.”
This really opened my eyes to how much my job was affecting my family. Right after this I felt the Holy Spirit telling me, “Don’t move.” After I saw that bat in bed with Matt, I decided to listen. I called my boss and told him I was quitting. Although it felt like a huge rock had fallen from my shoulders, it was really a huge step into the unknown! We had no idea how we were going to pay our bills! We wiped out our savings quickly. Nevertheless, in time, before our funds were totally depleted, another job came open. In this new job I became the top guy in the company and had paid off my house by Christmas! And you know what? I kept that T-ball bat all these years and have it in a place of honor in my office even today.
What advice would you give to someone who is going through the transplant process today?
From a practical standpoint, I would advise them to get their financial affairs in order. I would also tell them to spend time with their family. I finally would encourage them to put aside their fears and let God take over. Even when my donated kidney failed, I didn’t become fearful of what would come next. I was grateful for the 35 years the Lord had given me. I learned that if you hang onto God, you can make it through your wall of fear and gain even more than you have lost.
What a great story of faith and hope! An example for all of us!
March 29, 2019
Shannon, tell us about how you heard that Walt needed a kidney?
In September of 2016, I was sitting in church at our Park Congregation’s Central Branch and heard the announcement that Walt Erwin was in dire need of a kidney. Walt and Kathy had recently become members at our Jenks Branch; so, I didn’t know him well then.
What motivated you to become a donor?
This is going to sound strange, but after hearing the announcement and request for donors, I heard the Lord’s word in my heart saying, “It’s you, Shannon.”
I thought to myself, “Did anyone else hear that?”
The voice had seemed to be talking to me and me only, but I just shrugged it off as being too weird and went about my business. However, the voice didn’t stop. After this episode, about once a month I would hear it again, and every time I would just ignore it. After all, I barely knew Walt. My husband and I both had had some serious health issues in the 3 years before this, and my job kept me traveling and super busy…it just didn't make sense to donate a kidney to a perfect stranger. Then in July of 2017, I was driving with a friend who turned to me from the passenger side and said, “Shannon, one of my friends just donated her kidney to a complete stranger!” Well, now this really irked me. After all, I had been resisting this inner voice telling me to donate my kidney to this man I hardly knew for months now.
I asked her, “Why would you say that to me?”
She couldn’t understand why I was so frustrated with her. After this incident, the Holy Spirit really started working on me. I began hearing the voice every week! Nevertheless, I just kept ignoring it. Then in mid-September I was invited to a women’s brunch at church. I didn’t want to go since Saturday was my only day off and on top of that, I would have to cook (I don’t like to cook). Mitch, my husband, who is also the Preaching Minister at Park, helped me understand that my presence would count and urged me to go. I knew I had a bad attitude, but it felt like something was trying to keep me away from that event. I then prayed that the Lord would help me change my bad attitude. After this prayer, I finally found the resolve to go. Then another “coincidence" occurred after I arrived at the event. Believe it or not, no sooner had I arrived in the fellowship hall, but the first person I saw there was Kathy Erwin, Walt’s wife. I was thinking, “I can’t believe this!” At the end of the event, we had time for prayer requests. Kathy shared that Walt had only 7% function left in his kidney and was going to have to start dialysis. She shared that their life was about to change. She said that because he had so many antibodies which had formed after his first transplant, it was almost impossible to find a match for him now. I left that event knowing that I was going to have to face the Holy Spirit’s urging in my heart. When I got home from the event, I brought it up to Mitch for the first time. Because the Holy Spirit had not been speaking to him for a year, he told me “I need to pray about it”.
How did your family respond to your offer to donate your kidney?
We both continued praying about the opportunity and God’s timing. About three weeks after I told Mitch that I thought the Holy Spirit was guiding me to be tested to see if I was a donor, we were both watching the TV, and a story about kidney donation came on the news. We both looked at each other, again surprised by another “coincidence.” That did it. Mitch finally said he thought I should be tested to see if I were a match.
Share with us briefly what the preparations were like – things like testing and other medical protocols you had to complete before you were accepted as a donor.
I then called Kathy (Walt was at dialysis) and told her I wanted to be tested. At this time, I had not told my kids or any other people. I only shared my decision with Mitch and Kathy. I began paperwork and some online tests to check my own health history – and soon after was scheduled for the initial blood test called a cross-match test to see if I would be a match. Walt and Kathy and their children and their spouses got on the phone to pray for the success of the cross-match test the night before my test.
Immediately after my initial blood test, I met with the transplant coordinator to ask her when we would receive the results. She shared with me that it would take 4 or 5 days to get the results, but not to get my hopes up, as it would have to be God Ordained for me to be a match.
In October I found out that I was a match. I called Mitch and Kathy and Walt, all four of us got on the phone together. Then I said, "Walt I’m a match!”
Kathy shouted “Hallelujah!” and Walt started crying. He said this was very unusual and that his doctor had told him not to expect a match. From that point on, we both continued to do tests, but we still didn’t tell anyone. Walt had told people at the Jenks Branch that he had found a donor but didn’t disclose who it was.
One Sunday, while continuing with testing, I “just happened” to attend that very service with my son who was in town and wanted to go to that branch. At the end of service Walt stood up in the pulpit and announced the good news to the audience that he had a donor (but didn’t share that it was me). The whole room exploded with joy and relief. I believe that God arranged for me to be at that service to show me how many people cared about Walt and how much joy the difficult decision had brought them. Walt had to be in isolation for 3-4 months after the surgery.
As far as expenses go, all my expenses were covered by Walt’s insurance. Tell us anything you’d like to share about the surgery itself.
My part of the surgery was simple. Due to advanced surgical techniques, the procedure to remove my kidney was done as a laparoscopy. I had only a 6- inch scar in my lower belly and 2 other 1- inch scars. I was only in the hospital two days and one night. I had a minimal amount of pain after surgery, so I took very little pain medication. What about your emotional response to the surgery?
I had no fear through the whole process: none during the testing nor the procedure itself. None at all! I think the Lord, supernaturally protected me from fear. Describe your rehabilitation process after surgery.
Not long at all. 3 weeks after the surgery I flew to a business conference. (My doctor didn’t know about it, though.) I couldn’t lift heavy things for a while. It took a month for me to walk at a normal pace. The biggest issue I had was when I was trying to get back to normal was fatigue. I’d be OK in the mornings, but in the afternoon, I would get tired easily. If you had it to do all over again, would you still volunteer?
Yes, I certainly would. I wish more people would consider becoming donors. It’s amazing how easy it really is. How did your gift of life to Walt impact your own life in a positive way?
I believe this donation opened the door for me to share about the Lord. I’ve done podcasts about this experience, and Walt and I have been interviewed by Woman’s World Magazine and other news sources. Debbie, I also feel that the Lord gave me this opportunity because HE knew that it would be something that would point only to HIM. I have been able to share my story with those in my work life too – which all of this points to the Lord and how we hear from Him. Thanks so much to Walt and Shannon for sharing their stories with us, We at Swim Strokes hope others will be as inspired by their experiences as we have been. It’s amazing what can happen if we would listen to the Lord, put our fears aside, and courageously do what He asks us to do.
Here are some facts from the National Kidney Foundation website:
123, 000 Americans are currently on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant.
More than 101,000 people need a kidney, but only 17,000 people receive one each year.
Every day 12 people die waiting for a kidney.
Organ and tissue donations help others giving them a second chance at life.
If you would like to become an organ and tissue donor (either with a deceased or living donation) see the Donate Life America website sponsored by the National Kidney Foundation.