Receiving the Gift of Life

Posted: 11/28/2010

Glenmary Brother Ken Woods and Michael Pearson

By Margaret Gabriel

On Thursday, July 1, 2010, Brother Ken Woods got the call he had been waiting for—praying for—since meeting Michael Pearson. The phone rang at 11:30 a.m., and the caller told Brother Ken there was a liver waiting for Michael.

"I didn't even pack anything, and I left wet clothes in the washing machine!" Brother Ken recalls. The clothes waited until after Brother Ken drove Michael from his home in Kingsport, Tenn., to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville for liver transplant surgery.

Michael, while working as a registered nurse, had contracted Hepatitis C years earlier as a result of inadvertent needle sticks. Although the infection had been dormant for many years, "when it came out, it headed straight for my liver!" Michael says.

Then Michael learned his liver had developed cancerous tumors, making his need for a transplant much more critical.

As a result, his name could potentially move to the top of the liver recipient list once an important need was met. The doctors and social workers at Vanderbilt required that Michael have a caretaker who could live with him full-time for the first month after his surgery.

Twice widowed, Michael had no one to fill such a role. His daughter lives several states away and has small children, preventing her from coming to Tennessee to help her father. But his church community set the wheels in motion to find someone who could. Enter Brother Ken Woods.

When Glenmary brothers move into a community, they look for ways to use their individual gifts to meet the needs of the greater community. A licensed practical nurse, Brother Ken's ministry through the years has focused on serving the sick, especially the elderly. For the past several years he worked with Glenmary senior members in Cincinnati.

Upon receiving senior membership himself, Brother Ken moved to Kingsport and looked for a way to link his background, interest and skills with the needs of those in the area.

He eventually met Dolores Bertuso, parish nurse at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Kingsport. He told her of his years of experience caring for the sick and volunteered to help however he could.

So when Dolores received "an SOS from a fellow parish nurse," looking for someone who could spend a month caring for a liver transplant patient, she knew the man for the job.

Dolores explained the situation to Brother Ken, who also spoke with Michael's doctor. Soon after, Brother Ken contacted Michael and introduced himself, beginning a journey neither will soon forget.

Brother Ken's decision allowed Michael's name to be moved to the top of the transplant list in spring 2010. Patient and caregiver settled in to wait for a call from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

During his wait, Michael needed periodic transportation to Nashville for doctors visits, appointments with social workers and lab work.

Brother Ken took on the task of providing transportation, giving the two the opportunity to use the five-hour trips back and forth to become better acquainted before they became roommates.

They discovered that they shared a lot in common, especially since both are retired nurses. The road trips were never boring thanks to Michael's storytelling skills. He says that his nickname is "The Man of a Million Stories," and he's not shy about sharing them!

Finally, on July 1, the phone call came, and Brother Ken and Michael headed to Nashville in a hurry

Following Michael's four-hour surgery, Brother Ken returned to Kings­port—just to pack a bag and retrieve the wet laundry! During Michael's first post-operative days, Brother Ken stayed with him, sleeping on a couch in his hospital room.

Upon Michael's discharge, the two stayed at Hospital Hospitality House, a facility in Nashville that makes lodging available for patients who are not hospitalized but who need extended time with access to medical care.

For nearly four weeks, Michael and Brother Ken shared a room, enjoyed meals at the hospitality house and made trips to the hospital every other day for blood work or meetings with Michael's doctor.

On days when they were not making hospital visits, Michael and Brother Ken relaxed at the hospitality house. They discussed "everything under the sun," according to Michael. Occasionally, they would go shopping or take a drive.

Mostly, though, they shared their lived experiences, including stories about Cincinnati, the city where Michael's mother received her nurse's training. Nearly a month after surgery Michael's doctors told him he could return to Kingsport.

The two continue to visit each other periodically, and Brother Ken takes Michael to doctors appointments when needed.

Michael says he is feeling stronger every week. He admits that during his recuperation at the Hospitality House he had some grumpy days. "But Brother Ken had the patience of a saint!"

Brother Ken, quiet and unassuming, smiles at the description. He simply says he was in the right place at the right time to provide the care that helped save Michael's life.

Today, Michael has added one more story to his repertoire.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 Glenmary Challenge.