By Karen Gardner | Frederick News-Post Staff
She is also a kidney donor.
The day before Thanksgiving, Hanberry, 62, went to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia to give one of her two healthy kidneys to LaVerne Gill. Hanberry and Gill, 63, met at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, sort of a cross between a summer camp and a writer's workshop in western New York.
Hanberry spends a week there each summer, through the auspices of her church, the United Church of Christ. She serves on the board of directors for the UCC Society at Chautauqua.
Gill, a UCC minister who lives in Reston, Va., has served as a chaplain administrator at UCC Chautauqua for the past four summers. "I led the search to bring her on as chaplain," Hanberry said.
At Chautauqua, Hanberry got to know Gill, and learned of her kidney disease. Eventually, she learned that Gill would need a transplant. Hanberry didn't hesitate to offer.
"She has so much energy and so much more to do," Hanberry said. "It was important to me that she carry on with what she was doing."
Gill last served as pastor of a church in Michigan, commuting from the home she shares with her husband in Northern Virginia. For four years, she has served as a Chautauqua UCC chaplain, and she has one more year to serve.
She also has diabetes, which led to kidney disease. "Within a year, she was going to have to go on dialysis," Hanberry said.
"My plan was to let her know I wouldn't be back for next year," Gill said. Gill was dreading this, because she loves Chautauqua and wanted to fulfill her contract, but she knew her health wouldn't allow it. "I had made a commitment," Gill said.
She didn't have to worry about not fulfilling her commitment. Reluctantly, she told Hanberry she had fourth stage kidney disease. After some prodding, Gill told Hanberry she was in need of a transplant.
"Pat said, 'I have a kidney,'" Gill recalled. "I said, 'You don't just walk up to someone and say I have a kidney.' She said, 'But I do.' She asked if I had paperwork."
Gill had a donor form among her paperwork, and Hanberry wanted to get the process started. "We completed the form and faxed it to Inova," Gill said.
When Gill got home to Reston in September, she and Hanberry had bloodwork taken, and learned that their blood matched. They decided to do the transplant before Thanksgiving so they could be on their way to recovery by Christmas.
"The matching process is not what it once was," Hanberry said. "We all still have this idea you have to have an exact match. That's no longer true."
Immune-suppressing drugs have made it easier for donor kidneys to be matched to recipients. Blood type and antibodies need to be compatible.
"They test for antibodies four times during the process," Hanberry said. "We had to get our blood taken on the same day."
If their blood or antibodies weren't compatible on any of these occasions, Hanberry said she was prepared to donate her kidney to someone else. It's called a kidney chain, she said.
"Everything worked out," Hanberry said.
"It's already a gift," Gill said. "It's amazing. I'm feeling this energy. It has given me an extension of my life."
The remaining kidney functions at about 80 percent, Hanberry said. "As long as we're healthy, we can function fine," she said.
A kidney donor automatically goes to the top of a transplant list if she should one day need a new kidney.
Hanberry donated her right kidney. A typical kidney donor gives the left kidney, because it can usually be removed using laparoscopy. This saves the donor from undergoing surgery.
Hanberry had a cyst on her right kidney. "They tested it, and it was fine," she said. But doctors decided to transplant the left organ. That meant cutting through muscle in open surgery to remove it, and place it in Gill's pelvic area.
"They do not take out her kidneys," Hanberry said. The kidneys stay in the body and atrophy as the new kidney takes on the process of filtering blood and removing waste. The kidneys send waste products via the urethra to the bladder.
Gill will always need to take medication to allow her body to accept the organ. No matter how closely matched the donor and recipient are, any donated organ will be considered foreign by the body, and it takes medicine to get the body to accept it.
Gill's newfound energy has strengthened her resolve to make a difference. "It is an extension of life," she said.
Hanberry said Gill has increased the diversity of the chaplains at Chautauqua, bringing in chaplains from various ethnic backgrounds. Gill is African-American.
Gill will complete her service to Chautauqua this summer, and she is considering other missions to fulfill her vision of Christian service. "I started a ministry in Ghana, and I have unfinished business there," she said. She traveled to Ghana for eight years. She's not sure if she'll be able to go back soon, if ever, because of the vaccines Americans are required to have when traveling to the African nation.
"If I don't do that, I have plenty to do here," she said. "Everyone's talking about the middle class and the rich, and nobody's talking about the poor."
The two women and their husbands had dinner together New Year's Day. "Our husbands have been very good," Gill said. Members of the Chautauqua community who live in the area came to visit both women after the transplant while they were in the hospital.
Gill decided to attend seminary at age 46 after an already accomplished background, including a career as a radio and television producer and a publisher of a weekly newspaper. She has had four books published, including one about African-American women in Congress, published by Rutgers University Press.