Religious brother, priest forever bonded by kidney transplant

Father Scott Bullock and Christian Brother Stephen Markham pose together in late March in Dubuque, Iowa, about nine months after kidney transplant surgery. “It is without a doubt the greatest gift you can give anyone,” Brother Markham said of the donated kidney he received from his priest friend. (CNS photo/Dan Russo, The Witness)

by Dan Russo

DUBUQUE, Iowa (CNS) — Father Scott Bullock and Christian Brother Stephen Markham are forever bonded by a kidney transplant a year ago that has changed both men physically and spiritually.

“It is without a doubt the greatest gift you can give anyone,” Brother Markham said of the donated kidney he received from his priest friend.

The men recently discussed their experience with The Witness, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

“It was a great experience,” Father Bullock said. “I jokingly say to people, ‘I highly recommend it,’ but I really do. It really was not that hard and the benefits are so huge.”

Despite a major post-operative complication and a few other issues, both Father Bullock, 54, and Brother Markham, 73, continue to do well.

“I actually have more energy than I did for a year or a year and a half before the surgery,” Brother Markham said. “Having been told right before I got on dialysis that if I didn’t get on dialysis I had a very short time to live, and having been very, very sick at that time, you just look at everything differently.

“There are things that at one time in my life would have been a drama, and now it’s like, ‘We can deal with this,'” he continued. “The sense of gratitude of things you otherwise take for granted is just really powerful. I can’t say enough how grateful I am for all the wonderful people, but also, for the wonderful things in life.”

In 2015, Brother Markham, now living in Balltown, Iowa, was serving in Chicago as director of vocation ministry for his order and had been appointed vice provincial when he received news his kidneys were failing. His doctors encouraged him to seek a live donor after medications did not help.

Before the procedure, he could barely walk and was drained of energy. He now walks about three miles a day and has returned to part-time work for his order as director of temporary professed brothers and postulants. He works out of St. Mary’s University, a Christian Brothers institution in Winona, Minnesota.

From March 2015 until the surgery last June, Brother Markham was dependent on kidney dialysis to survive. A flare-up of chronic glomerilonephritis, a kidney disease he has had since age 14, caused his organs to fail. Brother Markham sent word of his need through his religious order, parish bulletins and even an interview with The Witness. The article caught Father Bullock’s eye.

The priest, now pastor at St. Edward Parish in Waterloo, became friends with Brother Markham when they served together from 1999 to 2002 at St. Catherine and St. Donatus parishes in nearby towns southeast of Dubuque. After completing numerous tests at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the priest prayerfully decided to give a kidney to his friend.

“There’s a sublime joy in laying down yourself and giving of yourself. The more you can do that, the better life is,” Father Bullock said.

On the day of the surgery, Father Bullock and Brother Markham were in neighboring operating rooms for a procedure that lasted about two hours. The priest’s left kidney went into the brother’s right side.

“I remember amazingly feeling quite calm,” Brother Markham said.

That feeling changed two days later when he had a heart attack during another procedure in which medication was being infused directly into his heart to kick-start his new organ. He was under intensive care for 24 hours afterward.

It is common for a transplanted kidney to take a few days to activate, but by June 21, five days after the surgery, Brother Markham’s was not yet working, so doctors were planning to put him through the same procedure that had caused his earlier heart attack. When Father Bullock learned about the plan, he began to pray for divine assistance.

“In my normal prayers, I looked at the calendar of feast days,” the priest said. “The saint of the feast day (June 21) was St. Aloysius Gonzaga. In reading his biography I discovered that he himself had suffered from kidney disease. It ended up taking his life ultimately with other things. Kind of in a moment of desperation I said, ‘Aloysius, help us out!'”

On that day, Brother Markham’s new kidney started functioning on its own, preventing the need for the second risky procedure. Both men acknowledge that it could have been the medication from the earlier procedure that jump-started the organ, but they believe the saint’s intercession was involved in prompting the kidney to work.

“Scott gave me a beautiful icon of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, which now hangs over what I now call my ‘pharmacy,'” Brother Markham said. “It’s a desk that has nothing but all my medicines. Aloysius Gonzaga is right there looking down on the medicines.”

Father Bullock had his own struggles through the course of the surgery and recovery. His mother had been ill, and died last June 23, shortly after the transplant. Despite his weakened condition, he flew to his hometown and celebrated the funeral Mass June 30.

Father Bullock’s recovered relatively quickly; the avid cyclist was back to riding his bike within a month. Brother Markham’s recovery took longer, about three months. Both men are thankful for their lives and the doctors, nurses and many other people that supported them through the transplant process.

Father Bullock encouraged anyone to consider organ donation.

“[This experience] taught me and reaffirmed my desire to just keep giving,” he said. “It’s the way to live fully. Clinging to life and trying to preserve it and protect it, that’s not living. If you give [your life] away, you’re going to be OK. [Organ donation] is a great thing to do and, I believe, really consistent with our faith.”

Copyright ©2017 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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