Chris Flohr, pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Missoula, talks Friday about his decision to donate a kidney to a fellow pastor in Westby who has polycystic kidney disease. The surgery to transplant one of Flohr’s kidneys to Barbara Westhoff is scheduled for May 10 in Denver. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulia
It was the mid-1980s when Chris Flohr started listing himself as an organ donor on his driver’s license.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” he said Friday, adding he was probably in his late teens at the time.
Flohr, pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Missoula, had generally the same reason for his recent decision to donate a kidney to a colleague with polycystic kidney disease.
Pastor Barbara Westhoff, who has served her entire 23 years as a pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Westby, has known since her early 20s that she likely would get the disease.
A grandmother on her mother’s side died from it in the 1960s and her mother had it, received a transplant, and died six months later from complications in 1982.
Her brother, now 55, received a kidney from a deceased donor in 1989 and is still living, even though the average life expectancy after a transplant from a deceased donor is only about 12 years.
There are five stages of kidney failure, and Westhoff has been at stage four since 2006. She hasn’t needed dialysis yet – a good thing, because transplant recipients who haven’t been on dialysis tend to live longer.
“The thought now is to do pre-emptive transplants, but of course that means for most people that you have to have somebody that’s willing to donate,” Westhoff noted.
Enter Flohr, whose offer was truly a godsend for Westhoff because numerous other possibilities haven’t worked out.
Westhoff’s husband of 33 years, Gaylan, would have liked to help, but had already donated one of his kidneys to a sister in 1972, when the procedure was relatively new and before he met Barbara.
“He was just kind of wishing he had three kidneys so he could have given me one,” Westhoff said.
Westhoff has been on the waiting list at Porter Adventist Hospital in Denver since 2009. The wait there for a kidney from a deceased donor is three to five years. Nationwide, the kidney transplant waiting list totals nearly 85,000 people.
Flohr’s interest in being a living donor came in part from watching stories about similar cases on television. He remembers how moved he was by those stories.
He and Westhoff had crossed paths at continuing education workshops and Montana Synod assemblies when Flohr served multiple congregations in the Glasgow area before moving to Missoula.
Her name started showing up in a list of prayer concerns e-mailed weekly by the synod office, but there were no specifics about her illness.
When her diagnosis showed up on one of the e-mails, Flohr looked the disease up on the Internet, and things began to come into focus.
“I realized, wow, she’s pretty far down the road,” Flohr said. “All of the people who had tried to be her donor began to just fall away.”
Flohr sent Westhoff an e-mail and told her he was willing to start the testing process. Once the blood type match was verified Flohr contacted the Denver hospital to start the process.
He cleared two rounds of testing, and then traveled to Denver for a psychiatric evaluation and a meeting with both surgeons and others who would be involved. The final step was approval from the hospital’s transplant board.
Toward the end of February, Flohr provided three sets of possible surgery dates that had to be matched with Westhoff. The surgery will take place May 10.
Flohr first told family members – two sisters and a brother – who reacted differently, but came to accept the idea. It took his wife, Nadine, a little longer to realize that something her husband had talked about actually was coming to pass.
For Flohr, any apprehension came at the front end of the process.
“It was like, ‘What are you doing?’” Flohr laughed. “The realization was pretty strong. At this end of it, I’m good to go. I’m really comfortable (and) at peace with going through the process and hoping for the best.”
Flohr next told his staff and the church council, but held off telling the congregation until after it voted on a planned major building project and Holy Week and Easter had passed.
“I really didn’t want this to have either a positive or negative impact (on the vote),” Flohr explained. “And Holy Week and Easter are about Christ and all that’s happened for us through that.”
The response has been positive, and Flohr has since heard numerous stories about people he knows who are living with one kidney.
The Flohrs will leave for Denver on May 3. Pre-op procedures will begin May 7.
Flohr said he hopes his experience will be educational and perhaps inspiring to others who might be considering a similar decision.
“The spiritual and faith part that has occurred to me over and over,” Flohr said, “is the deep sense of joy to hopefully be part of an answer to prayer for someone.
“We talk about prayer a lot,” he added. “We know prayer is our hearts and our words. But often it’s our hands and our feet and our actions where prayer gets lived out, too.”
An April fundraiser in Westby raised more than $13,000 to offset costs not covered by Westhoff’s medical insurance. She is truly overwhelmed by all that’s happening.
“I thank God and Chris,” Westhoff said. “It’s just amazing to realize that it’s coming up here very soon and to think of what a gift it is. There are not words to describe what an impact this will have on my life.”