A gift of renewed life: How do you thank someone for that?

Fort Worth Star-TelegramDecember 25, 2009 

FORT WORTH — Mark Rhodes was used to people at church asking about his health.

It was no secret that he was on dialysis and needed a kidney. He had been on the church's prayer list for months.

So when a church member he vaguely knew asked him how he was doing, he figured she was just making conversation.

"She walked up to me and said, 'How is the kidney thing going?’ " Rhodes recalled. "I said, 'It is what it is. I’ll get through it.’ "

Rhodes said the woman then asked him his blood type, a question he found strange. O-positive, he told her.

"She said, 'I’m also O-positive. What do I need to do to find out if I can give you my kidney?’ " Rhodes said.

Rhodes said he was floored by the woman’s offer, a virtual stranger whose name he couldn’t even remember.

"That one I wasn’t ready for," Rhodes said.

The woman, Victoria Trettel — a 55-year-old grandmother of nine — said she didn’t wake up one morning and decide to give away her kidney. It wasn’t something she had thought about or discussed with her husband or four children.

But when she saw Rhodes and heard they had the same blood type, she said she felt it was what she was supposed to do. "It was God’s plan, not mine," she said matter-of-factly.

In poor health

In 1994, Rhodes was diagnosed with Alport syndrome, a genetic disorder that can lead to kidney failure.

The doctors told him not to worry, that he would be fine.

But three years ago, Rhodes got a wake-up call. His father-in-law had died suddenly of cancer, and his wife, Carrie, insisted that her friends and family get a physical.

Rhodes went to the doctor and was surprised to learn that there was blood in his urine. Further tests were ordered, and he was referred to a nephrologist, or a kidney doctor.

"Test after test started showing I was losing kidney function," Rhodes said. "From 2007 to 2009, I was down to 12 percent kidney function. Then, they brought the D-word in."

Dialysis.

In October 2008, Rhodes started undergoing dialysis every other day for four hours a day at Fresenius Medical Care in Fort Worth. He was also put on a national transplant waiting list, joining more than 100,000 people in the country waiting for an organ.

While most people turn to a family member for a kidney, Rhodes said he didn’t have that option. His father wasn’t in his life, his mother was dead, and his stepfather was too old. He never knew his two sisters, who died before he was born. His daughters, ages 7 and 13, were too young, and his wife wasn’t a match.

"My friends offered, but when you tell them what is involved they don’t mention it anymore," he said.

Eventually, the dialysis took its toll and Rhodes was no longer able to work a full eight-hour day at his job as a print shop production manager.

"When our little recession hit, naturally, I was the first one to go," he said.

The family downsized, and Rhodes’ wife started working two jobs to support them. Rhodes, meanwhile, became "Mr. Mom," taking care of their daughters and the family’s Forest Hill home.

Although things seemed bleak, Rhodes said he never lost faith.

He found comfort in his church, Shepherds Valley Cowboy Church in Egan, where he sings on the praise and worship team.

He was added to the prayer list, and members of the congregation regularly inquired about his health.

One Sunday, Rhodes said he was singing at the church’s secondary campus when Trettel dropped by to pass out fliers for a youth concert.

"I had seen her but didn’t know who she was," Rhodes said.

Then came the conversation that would change his life. After learning his blood type, she thought she might be able to help.

"Of course, I had heard that before," he said. "But she called that afternoon and the next afternoon and the next, and I realized she was serious."

Trettel, a manicurist at Moda salon in Fort Worth, contacted Rhodes’ kidney transplant program at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth and made appointments to take tissue and blood tests. On July 19 — Rhodes’ 40th birthday — the results came back.

"Not only did I have the same blood type, I had the same antibodies," said Trettel, who lives in Covington, a small community in Hill County. "Every single test came back better and better."

Rhodes said he cried when Trettel called him and told him the news.

"I was actually at a men’s meeting with the church. She called and said, 'I wanted you to know — happy birthday — I’m a match,’ " Rhodes said. "It was a special day."

Rhodes and Trettel, once strangers, were suddenly on a life-altering journey together.

They met each other’s families, talked on the phone, had dinner — and prayed.

"We are like brother and sister," Rhodes said. "I grew to love her. At any time, she could have said 'I’m not ready to do this,’ and that wouldn’t have changed how I felt about her. She never faltered."

Trettel said she never faltered because God was in control. Every doctor’s appointment, medical test — all the paperwork and approvals — sailed through. Her husband, Randy, along with her children, friends, co-workers and clients were all supportive. The church held a fundraiser for them, which compensated her for several weeks of lost wages at work.

"All the way to the surgery, I never had a second thought about what I was doing," she said. "God worked out every detail. I knew I was going to heal and Mark was going to be fine. That is all God."

Rhodes said he was also confident God was in charge.

"We told the doctors, 'We know how positive this is going to be. You can warn us of all the risks, but we are not worried,’ " he said.

On Nov. 3, Rhodes and Trettel underwent surgery at the Fort Worth hospital.

"The kidney fired right off," Rhodes said. "The doctors said that sometimes they have to put you back on dialysis to jump-start a new kidney. That wasn’t the case."

Both patients came out of the surgery in good spirits, asking about each other.

"Pain-wise, she had to go through more than I did," Rhodes said. "The donors are the lifesavers. All I did was lay there and get operated on."

Shortly after the surgery, Trettel managed to get out of bed and find Rhodes.

"We were on the same floor but at opposite ends," Rhodes said. "They do that to motivate you to get up. She won that race. She got on her walker and came to me."

When Rhodes saw her, he broke down.

This woman, a grandmother from church, had selflessly given him her kidney — and his life back.

"Words can’t describe the feeling," he said. "How do you thank someone for that?"

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