From priest to priest: Kidney donation is gift of life

Right now, it only hurts when he laughs, but Father John-Nhan Van Tran, pastor of Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville, said he is overjoyed with his decision to donate a kidney Aug. 17 to a brother priest from Oklahoma City.
 “I’m still alive,” Father Tran said with a laugh in a telephone interview from the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral rectory in Oklahoma City, where he was recuperating before returning home this week to Louisiana. “Pain is a part of the thing. Right now, life is not a laughing matter.”

The kidney transplant was not yet a life or death matter for Father Thanh Van Nguyen, whom Father Tran first met when they attended St. Joseph Seminary College and Notre Dame Seminary together in the 1980s. But Father Nguyen was on regular dialysis and needed the transplant at some point to preserve his life.

The two priests had kept in occasional contact over the years. When Father Tran found out two years ago that his former seminary classmate needed a kidney, he offered to get tested to see if he could be a donor.

“It seemed like every time I called to check up on him, I had to remind him of the offer, because I couldn’t do anything unless I got the donor coordinator’s information to contact,” Father Tran said. “Earlier this year, when I finally insisted, he finally gave
it to me.”

That was in May. Father Tran already had made plans to serve as a spiritual director on a pilgrimage to Spain in June, which coincided with dates of extensive tests in Oklahoma City to determine if he was a suitable kidney donor.

There was no question in Father Tran’s mind: he would forego the pilgrimage.

Medical tests were somewhat foreign to Father Tran. He had never been to the hospital before, and the only time he even went to the doctor was when he got the flu and needed a shot. He had a doctor on his insurance paperwork but had never made a visit.

By the time the doctors in Oklahoma City determined he was a match, the pilgrimage in Spain was in its final three days. At that point, Father Tran had not even told his family about his decision to donate a kidney.

Before going to Oklahoma City for the testing, Father Tran said he did not even check into the post-op ramifications of the surgery.

“I did read up on it afterward when they scheduled me for the procedure,” he said. “I wanted to see what I needed to do to take care of my health afterwards. Certainly, I need to drink a lot of fluids, which is kind of difficult for me because normally I don’t drink a whole lot. Of course, now I have to do a yearly checkup.”

On the day of surgery, Father Tran prepared a text message to be sent to his family that essentially said: “Everything is set up and ready to go.”

He gave the phone to one of the Oklahoma City parishioners to push the “send” button at the appropriate time.

“I told them after I got wheeled in, they had to figure out what to say,” Father Tran said. “I wasn’t going to know what happened. I told my family not to worry.”

Surgeons removed his left kidney. So far, the operation seems to be successful, with no signs of rejection or other problems.

“Actually, it was pretty funny, because the day after the surgery, they took me to my room, and I was in pain, but then I saw him walking around and waving to me,” Father Tran said. “There I was – I couldn’t get out of bed the first two days and he was walking around. I was saying, ‘Man, that’s amazing, he can tolerate a lot of pain.’ But then I found out he didn’t get cut like the way I got cut. But, of course, he doesn’t look as good as I look.”

Father Tran said he is eager to return to ministry in Man- deville but will try to follow his doctor’s advice by drinking plenty of water and walking regularly. He said he never looked back after making the decision to help his friend.

“When I make a decision, it’s like second nature to me,” he said. “That’s the way God wired me. I never really have given much thought about what could happen and all that stuff. I know from visiting people in the hospital that you only need one kidney. I’ve never given it a thought. If it’s God’s will, it will work out.”

Father Tran said going from never having seen a doctor to donating a kidney in a major operation has given him a new view on pain and on hospital ministry.

“I have a different perspective, especially for mothers,” he said. “If a C-section is this painful, I don’t know if I would have more than one.”

He celebrated the other day with a steak and lobster dinner, and he said the people from the cathedral parish have been treating him like royalty.

“Life is good,” he said. “The only thing I’m expected to do is eat, dress and walk. How difficult is that? I told Archbishop (Gregory) Aymond, ‘With the care I’m receiving, I’m trying to figure out what else I can donate.’”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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