October 13, 2023

Priest donates part of his liver to save a stranger’s life—after changing a family’s world by donating a kidney

Father Christopher  Wadelton, pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus, baptizes Charlie Bode as his smiling parents, Katie and Tom Bode, savor the celebration of the sacrament. Katie Bode and Father Wadelton are cousins who shared some time together in Portland, Ore., one of the places the priest visited this summer. (Submitted photo)

Father Christopher Wadelton, pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus, baptizes Charlie Bode as his smiling parents, Katie and Tom Bode, savor the celebration of the sacrament. Katie Bode and Father Wadelton are cousins who shared some time together in Portland, Ore., one of the places the priest visited this summer. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The inspiration for Father Christopher Wadelton to donate part of his liver on Sept. 18 to help save a stranger’s life came at a celebration a year ago.

It happened during a reception at a downtown Indianapolis hotel in which the pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus was honored with other living organ donors—as Father Wadelton had donated one of his kidneys in 2020 to improve the quality of life of a friend.

As he listened to the tributes for the other donors, Father Wadelton was surprised to learn that some of them had donated both a kidney and part of their liver to make a difference in people’s lives.

The now 57-year-old priest didn’t realize that such a combination was even possible, but the more he thought about it, the more it intrigued him—especially when he considered the lives of the four people he had invited to the reception.

Father Wadelton had met Rebeca Barcenas, her husband Rafael Ventura and their daughters, Jennifer and Carmen, when he previously served as the pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis.

In 2020, the then-37-year-old Barcenas had been on dialysis for seven years because of kidney failure. She longed to be the best mother she could be to her children and to have a normal family life. And she knew she needed a kidney transplant to have a chance to fulfill those goals.

Still, she was stunned when Father Wadelton told her he was pursuing the possibility of being an organ donor for her. And she called him “an angel of God” when he said he would do it after extensive testing showed he was a compatible match.

As he shared the reception with the family of four, there was mutual joy.

“I saw the healing effect of a living donation at work right in front of me,” Father Wadelton says. “She’s able to have a normal life. They’re able to go on vacation. They’re able to make plans for the future. She’s working, which helps her daughter Jennifer go to college. Just having the normal, fulfilling life with all the joys—without being tied to dialysis every other day, three days a week.

“She’s expressed her gratitude to me. A couple times a week, she’ll send me a text saying, ‘Remember we love you. We thank you for what you did for our family.’ It’s not the reason I did it, but it clearly shows she and her family are appreciative.”

That overwhelming appreciation flows from Barcenas when she talks about Father Wadelton.

“He gave me this opportunity to be here for my family,” she says. “I always call him ‘my angel.’ He’s a good, good man. He’s with God. He’s our family. We celebrate birthdays together. I told him when he gets older, I’ll take care of him. We love him.”

Seeing the change in Barcenas and her family served as a primary motivation for Father Wadelton to donate part of his liver to help save someone else’s life—even though he wouldn’t know the identity of the person he was trying to help.

This time, the surgery was far lengthier. And the intense pain he endured in the first few days of his recovery in the hospital led him to consider a question that he thought he never would ask.

Understanding the risks and the reward

“The surgery was much more extensive than I expected. It was almost 10 hours long, and the incision is probably 10 or 11 inches in length,” Father Wadelton says. “The first couple days were pretty bad after surgery, just keeping comfortable with the pain.

“In the middle of [that first week of recovery], when I started feeling a little down because of the duration of the pain, I started questioning, ‘Was this worth it?’ But that’s when I had to remind myself that I was only a few days out from surgery, and that’s a small sacrifice to make with the hopeful health gain for the other person. I can put up with some pain for a few weeks if this person gets to live without liver problems for the rest of their life, God willing.”

As his medication began to help ease the pain, even more so did the impact of a conversation he had with one of the medical staff involved in the surgical removal of part of his liver and the transplant operation involving the donor recipient.

“I asked the person, ‘You probably can’t say anything, but is she doing OK?’ The comment was, ‘I can’t say anything, but you can see I have a big smile on my face.’ I took that as good news. That’s the only indicator that it’s gone well.”

Father Wadelton’s surgeon had a similar reaction for the priest’s part of the transplant, telling him that the surgery was successful and that there were no concerns. Still, Father Wadelton was told to ease into his recovery.

“They gave me the full worst-case scenario timing-wise,” he says. “They said I wouldn’t be able to drive for four to six weeks. And I have lifting restrictions for about three months. But then they kept couching that with, ‘Just listen to what your body is saying. Do what you feel you can do, but don’t push it.’ They indicated fatigue would be my biggest enemy. And that I would feel tired for several weeks.”

They also informed him about the recovery time for the regeneration of his liver, the only organ in the human body which can regenerate itself. Father Wadelton was told his liver should regenerate to its original size in two to three months.

Equally amazing, the transplanted liver portion grows and restores normal liver function in the person receiving it.

Amid all that information and insights about the organ donation, Father Wadelton had the intense desire to return to serving his parishioners at St. Bartholomew as soon as possible—especially in celebrating Mass for them and with them.

‘The community has been wonderful’

After a week of care and recovery in the Indianapolis home of his sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Todd Moore, he returned to his parish on Sept. 29. Since then, he has begun to resume his role as pastor, benefitting—he says with a laugh—from “a bunch of mother hens [on the parish staff] who are protecting me from myself, which is beautiful. I really appreciate them.”

He celebrated one Mass that first weekend while also being present in the narthex before the start of all the liturgies, welcoming parishioners.

“We had a healing Mass, and I helped with the anointing of the sick during that Mass,” he says. “People were surprised to see me so quickly and glad to see me, which was nice.”

Aware of his own continuing need to heal, he has tried to keep his schedule light the first few weeks since the surgery.

“Everything is just a little more difficult with major abdominal surgery. Walking, sitting up, moving around, it just takes a little more out of me,” he says. “I keep a few appointments every day, but then I disappear in the afternoon to relax, and then I come back in the evening.”

Even so, his schedule ramped up on the weekend of Oct. 6-8. He participated in a camping adventure with parish families at Brown County State Park on the night of Oct. 6, celebrated a Mass with them on Oct. 7, and then celebrated two of the three Masses at the parish church on Oct. 8.

“I think I took another step forward over the weekend, so that felt good,” he says. “We had a great outing with the people. I was pretty much 100 percent the whole weekend. I’m feeling good.”

Taking part in the camp-out and celebrating the Masses were his ways of showing his gratitude and commitment to parishioners.

“The community has been wonderful. They’ve done a meal train. People have been dropping off food—Filipino food, Mexican soups, more fruit than I could ever eat,” he says with a laugh. “I could not be more pleased and humbled by everybody’s support with me taking time off and covering things while I’ve been gone.”

He also expressed his thanks to retired Father Martin Peter for helping to celebrate Masses at the parish while he was away—and to Father Clement Davis, the parish’s senior parochial vicar, for helping to guide St. Bartholomew since May, when Father Wadelton began a three-month sabbatical.

Experiencing ‘the beauty and enormity of God’s abundant creation’

From late May to early September, Father Wadelton embarked on a long road trip that led him across Canada, along the west coast of the United States and down into Mexico before heading back to Indiana for the transplant operation.

He kayaked, rode his mountain bike and camped extensively, including with friends in the Canadian Rockies.

During the journey, he also baptized the son of one of his cousins, visited 18 of the 21 mission churches in California, and spent several days in Mexico, using his command of Spanish to help an organization that assists migrants coming from Central America or who have been deported from the United States.

It was all part of an adventure that Father Wadelton says revealed “the beauty and enormity of God’s abundant creation”—an adventure that replenished his spirit and built up his physical stamina for the transplant surgery.

“This time, I wanted to feel what it was like to give a completely anonymous donation,” he says. “And whoever received it, whether I know them or not, it’s not the reason I’m doing it.”

The prayers from parishioners have poured forth for him through it all. Barcenas and her family have also prayed for Father Wadelton and the donor recipient.

“He feels he needs to help people,” she says. “He always looks to help people. I tell him that God is with him.”

Father Wadelton views his efforts as a living donor as a prayer in itself, living out Christ’s call to show compassion and concern for others.

“Christ just wants us to use whatever talents and gifts we have for the good of others,” he says. “We’re all called to give whatever we can, whether that’s money or time or wisdom. For me, I have a liver that can help somebody, so I wanted to do it. I feel like I needed to do it to help someone else.”

(More than 1,000 Hoosiers are among more than 100,000 Americans waiting for lifesaving organ transplants, according to Donate Life Indiana, an organization that creates awareness and provides ways for Indiana residents to become transplant donors. For anyone interested in learning more about being a living donor, check the websites, www.donatelifeindiana.org or www.indianadonornetwork.org.)

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