INDIANAPOLIS — Like many parents, Rebeca Barcenas had this one overwhelming prayer that she continually shared with God.
She longed to be the best mother she could be to her children, to have the normal family life that her kidney failure had taken away from her.
After being on dialysis for seven years, Barcenas knew that her best chance of having her prayer answered was to receive a kidney transplant. So she was touched when her parish priest at the time, Father Christopher Wadelton, told her he was pursuing the possibility of being an organ donor for her, and encouraging others at St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis to do the same.
She also was stunned and thrilled when the extensive testing showed that Wadelton was a compatible match for her, beating long-shot odds.
So on the morning of May 14, the 37-year-old Barcenas and the 54-year-old Wadelton prepared for transplant surgeries that would change their lives, connect them forever and show the depth of their faith.
“I think he is an angel of God that God sent to me and my family — to heal so much pain and suffering that we had been through,” she said. “To sacrifice an organ, in this case a kidney, to another person, I think it’s beautiful.”
Wadelton, now the pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus, Indiana, had his own prayer in donating a kidney to Barcenas.
The priest’s connection with Barcenas, her husband, Rafael Ventura, and their two daughters began when he was pastor of St. Philip Neri Parish from 2013 to 2019.
“I’ve known the family a little over six years. They were active members of the Spanish community in Masses, and they were a family at Holy Cross Central School. I really cared for their entire family,” he said.
Wadelton knew that Barcenas’s kidney failure was so severe that she was on dialysis for about five hours a day for three days a week. He also knew that schedule robbed her of the energy she wanted to devote to her children, 16-year-old Jennifer and 9-year-old Carmen.
“One of my main motivations for helping Rebeca was her two daughters,” he told The Criterion, newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese. “I knew that Rebeca’s illness and dialysis added a lot of stress to their family, and occupied a lot of time for Rebeca each week. I prayed that I could do something to help alleviate some stress and give her more time with her children.”
So he looked into becoming a living donor when Barcenas went on the transplant list in 2018.
“A transplant is one of those rare times in surgery when you can cure somebody,” said Dr. William Goggins, director of adult and pediatric kidney transplantation at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. He has 20 years of experience performing such surgeries. “Through the gift of transplants, you basically restore people to being fully healthy.”
He noted that “an average of 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant a year. And only 16,000 kidney transplants are done a year in this country.”
On the morning of May 14, Wadelton and Barcenas both awaited their surgeries.
For Barcenas, it was a morning of mixed emotions. Goggins recalled her having “a lot of apprehension” coming into the surgery. There also was the sense of overwhelming gratitude for Wadelton.
That feeling had never left her since the day of Jennifer’s 2018 graduation from Holy Cross Central School, the day when the priest told her he would try to donate a kidney to her.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Father Chris is an amazing person and a very good priest that worries for his people and his community and for all human rights. He always tries to help in whatever way he can without wanting anything in return.”
For Wadelton, it was another time in his life when he believed God had led him to this moment. And still he was amazed that it was happening.
“The odds that we were compatible in both blood type and tissue type were a very small percentage,” he said. “There were four different stages of testing along the way. It took close to one and a half years of testing for everything to go forward.”
Then when the transplant was scheduled to take place earlier this year, it was delayed because of the coronavirus crisis.
Even with all the testing and the setbacks, Wadelton kept increasing his efforts to be in prime physical shape for the surgery.
“I’m a runner and a biker,” said the priest, noting that he runs about four miles two to three times a week and bikes about 12 to 15 miles once a week. “I thought I was in good shape, and I worked even harder in the past six months to get ready for this.”
His surgery at IU Health’s University Hospital began first, an operation to remove one of his two kidneys that lasted about three and a half hours. The transplant of his kidney into Barcenas’s body followed, lasting about three and a half hours for her.
Goggins said Wadelton is “an example of truly the kind of person who donates a kidney — completely unselfish. Just the giving of self to help someone else is truly remarkable. Donors are such exceptional people.”
Since his return to St. Bartholomew Parish, Wadelton has been keeping a full schedule and continues to feel “very good,” he said. “My energy level is almost back to 100 percent. The parish staff has been great. They have been taking care of things around the parish and ‘mothering’ me.”
As a mother, Barcenas said Wadelton’s gift to her also is a gift to her family. She now has hopes of being the mom she’s always wanted to be for her girls.
The girls have high praise for Wadelton.
“I think of Father Chris as a friend and as family,” Jennifer said. “As a priest, he has helped me understand more of God.”
Carmen said, “He is kind and very brave. He’s like a superhero.”
Said their dad and Barcenas’s husband, Rafael: “He has given us the example to be more humble and to support other people and families whenever they need it, without receiving anything in return.”
Wadelton has a different perspective.
“I just feel I’ve done what God has put before me. It’s a minor miracle that we worked out to be compatible. I really felt God’s presence through the whole thing,” he said. “I felt he was driving it. I was just saying yes to what was sitting in front of me.”
Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.