MODESTO — Brian McVay looks forward to celebrating Easter today with a new understanding of what the Resurrection means.
Earlier this month, the 39-year-old Modesto man received the gift of life a kidney donated by Shawanna Hanson, a 42-year-old Missouri woman who has her own Easter story to tell. Because of her generosity, Brian no longer spends eight hours a day hooked up to a dialysis machine. He's regaining his strength. He believes he'll be able to work again and support his family of five.
Mostly, he's thrilled to face a future filled with hope.
"I'm looking at the resurrection of Jesus in a whole new light," Brian said. "He saved my soul 12 years ago and completely changed my life. But now he saved my life again; my soul was saved, and now my physical body has been saved as well. Easter will be much more a celebration of life."
It's a far different one than he was facing a year ago.
Brian had a difficult childhood growing up in the airport neighborhood of Modesto. Having an absentee father who was hooked on pornography and drugs was tough enough. But after his dad was killed in a motorcycle accident while fleeing the law, Brian, then 13, began lashing out.
He was in and out of juvenile hall, spending his 18th birthday there. His mom, he said, did her best, moving her three children to Ceres after her husband's death and working two jobs, but they always were poor. Addicted to methamphetamine by the time he was 16, Brian began injecting the drug at 18.
"I lived with a needle in my arm for the next 10 to 15 years," he told The Bee in an interview published last Easter. "All I lived for was to get high and to hurt people. My life was so messed up, I wanted to mess up other people's lives."
Then, in 2002, while in prison for the last time, Brian became hooked on God. It transformed his life, he said. With the help of Christian men who mentored him, he stopped swearing, stopped smoking and stopped having the urge to hurt anyone. After his release in 2003, he met Christina at a church service. The two married a few months later and combined their children into a family. Brian McVay Jr., 19, lives in Washington. Kelsey Cooper, 17, and Brina McVay, 14, are still at home.
Brian found a good-paying job as a pipe fitter, but in 2010, he began experiencing severe headaches, which progressed to vomiting and weight loss. In August 2011, he was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, a kidney disorder with no cure. A transplant was his only hope, but it could take seven years to get one, and there were no guarantees of a match.
The Bee ran his story with a link to a website where potential donors could fill out a form. The McVays put a link to the story on their Facebook page.
Missouri woman sees link
Two thousand miles away, in the small town of Diggins, Mo., Shawanna read the story. She once had worked with Christina at a nursing home in Springfield, Mo. They hadn't seen each other for 15 years, and Shawanna had never met Brian. But God had clearly been preparing her heart, she said.
One year earlier, on Easter Sunday 2011, Shawanna and her husband, Jesse, had gone forward during an altar call at church. Her father, who had his own godly transformation story while serving four years in a Texas prison, had been calling her every Monday, urging her to go to church.
"Knowing how Daddy was before and hearing how he'd changed through Christ had a huge impact on my life," Shawanna said. "On that Sunday, my husband and I went down and accepted Jesus as our savior. Actually, Daddy died in prison (a few months later) from a massive heart attack. Even though it's hard knowing he died alone, I know where he's at," she said with tears in her voice. "He's in heaven. That's everything, knowing where he is."
Last Easter, the Hansons were baptized. Then Shawanna read about Brian's plight, and her life changed.
"I felt like God had called me to do this," she said. "I know that people don't understand why I would donate a kidney for someone who isn't even family, someone I didn't even know. But I heard God's voice, telling me to do this."
Filling out a simple health questionnaire online was followed by months of fund-raising, by the McVays in Modesto and by Shawanna in Missouri. Because the McVays had no health insurance Brian's job had paid well but offered no insurance, and Christina had to quit her job with benefits to care for Brian they had been told by the transplant staff at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center that they needed to raise about $30,000 before testing of a potential donor could begin. The money would ensure Brian could afford expensive post-surgery anti-rejection drugs and other costs.
The McVays' church, Shelter Cove Community Church, held fund-raisers, and other churches and individuals donated money. Even Shawanna's mom and daughter got into the act, with her mother making beaded jewelry to sell and daughter Jessica, now 6, setting up a lemonade stand outside a store in Diggins, so small it doesn't even have a post office, Shawanna said.
Then there were months of medical tests blood work, X-rays, tissue samples, etc. Shawanna said bags of instructions and vials for blood would arrive at her home from UCSF, and she would travel to whichever medical facility in Missouri could do the tests. There were several bumps along the way, such as a spot found on Shawanna's lungs and another spot on her ovaries. All follow-up tests came back clear.
"When I got that phone call saying I was a match, it was like God putting an exclamation point on it: 'I told you so!' " Shawanna said.
Another 'gift from God'
Despite long odds, an unrelated stranger was headed to California to donate her kidney.
Then Shawanna's husband, who works nights in a factory, went into Uncle Rooster's Restaurant, where Shawanna is a waitress. He wasn't worried about his wife donating her kidney, she said. But he told her he didn't see how they could afford to each lose two to six weeks of pay, plus fund their airfare to California, the mandatory two-week stay at a hotel near UCSF and their incidental expenses such as food while they were gone.
The McVays, who both were subsisting on disability income and had their own financial struggles, also were stretched to their limit.
"Jesse was stressing out about it," Shawanna said. "I told him I didn't know how or when, but that God would take care of us."
Shawanna said she felt God confirm that trust a few hours later. A cousin called to say that a friend was pregnant and wanted to know if the Hansons would adopt her baby. Never able to conceive, Shawanna said, she always thought Jessica, also adopted, would be their only child. Then, in the midst of the preparation for the transplant and the worry about money, God brought a second daughter into their family.
Though others might see it as an additional financial burden for the family, Shawanna said she felt as though God was confirming he would take care of their finances and, to top it off, was sending something extra special to them.
"I felt that she was a gift from God because of all of this," Shawanna said.
Jessica had been asking for a sibling for years, Shawanna said. She had told her daughter to pray about it. Before the Hansons told Jessica about the baby, the girl said, "Mama, I think I'm going to have a baby sister."
"When we told Jessica we were going to have a little girl, we told her she could name her. Jessica picked out the name Jasmine. Then she said, 'Mama, I always had faith I was going to have a little sister.' That's where we got her middle name: Faith."
Jasmine Faith Hanson was born Feb. 6. Ten days later, Shawanna flew to San Francisco with the two girls for a CT scan to see which kidney the surgeon was going to remove. She returned to Missouri, worked two weeks, and then flew back to San Francisco with her husband and baby Jessica stayed in Missouri with Shawanna's mother for the operation, which took place March 12.
Transplant a success
The transplant operation was scheduled to take 3½ hours, but took an hour less, Christina said.
"The thing that's still very profound to me," Shawanna said, "is that when I woke up in recovery, my doctor said, 'It went perfect. As soon as that kidney was put into Brian, it started working immediately. That's almost unheard of.' I started praising the Lord."
The next day, Brian walked into Shawanna's room and they shared a "thumbs up" moment. Three days after surgery, they were released from the hospital. Brian returned home to Modesto; Shawanna and her family stayed in San Francisco. On March 23 11 days after surgery and a couple of days after a post-op checkup Shawanna flew home with her family.
The McVays' lives changed immediately.
"For a year and a half, I've been stepping over the cord going from the dialysis machine under the bed to the bathroom," Christina said. "Even now, I find myself stepping over it, but it's not there anymore. Brian had to hook up to the machine every night before he went to bed and stay hooked up for eight hours. He couldn't get up and do something. Now, he can just go to bed. He can go to sleep on the couch if he wants to.
"Even if I would not have had another Easter with my husband, I knew he trusted in the Lord and I would see him again in heaven. But now I'm truly blessed to have my husband around. A lot of people have come alongside us to help us do this. We want to help other people now and show them what it means to have such a loving God."
Brian is still in pain from the surgery, but it's diminishing and his energy level is rising every day. "If it wasn't for the pain, I feel like I could run around the block," he said.
After a couple of years on a very strict diet, he said doctors have him eating things he couldn't before, including dairy products, ice cream, nuts and beans.
"I actually bought a package of pistachios on the way home from UCSF," he said. "They tasted good!"
He knows he'll probably never have the stamina for his old 60-hour weeks hauling heavy pipes around, but he is "definitely looking forward to working again. I'm thinking of going back to school and using my brain instead of just my brawn."
The ordeal with the kidney disorder and the transplant, with all of those details falling into place far more quickly than anyone imagined, has left him with some new lessons, he said, especially spiritual ones.
"My heart wasn't really devoted," he said. "Also, I was so busy working all the time that my heart wasn't in my family. I wasn't being the dad or the Christian that I should have been. Now, I'm in it heart, mind and soul."
He advises people who are struggling with their own issues not to give up.
"There are people out there, not just Christians, who will help you," he said. "I had neighbors and people I didn't even know who would read about my story and send a letter or a check. Seek the help, from a church or an organization."
The McVays can't say enough about Shawanna and her gift to them.
"Shawanna is an amazing person," Christina said. "Not only has she given a kidney because of her love for us and for Jesus Christ, she's been singing this song by MercyMe called 'Here I Am (Send Me).' That song says, 'I want to proclaim the love of Jesus in all I do and say, unashamed.' That's basically what she's done ever since she came to know the Lord on Easter Sunday in 2011."
The Missouri woman downplayed their praise. "I'm so blessed to be a part of it," she said. "I'm just so honored. I really am."
She's not worried about her own health, now that she only has one kidney.
"Statistics say that people with two kidneys are more likely to have trouble than I am," she said. "Within a year, my left kidney will actually grow and do way more than enough."
Shawanna said she felt God's presence throughout the entire experience, overcoming her natural inclinations as "the biggest chicken walking this earth" to face all of the needles, tests and surgery.
Everything from people on the street who would hand her $20 to receiving a grant to cover most of her airfare and hotel costs to adopting a new daughter to having a successful transplant surgery was all a sign that God had her in his hands, she said.
"People say, 'You're great,' " Shawanna said. "No, I'm not. I can't explain it except to say God spoke to my heart and I had faith. I was just trying to help and follow God's plan. If you're not a believer, sometimes it's hard to understand. Out of all the people in the world, I was a perfect match. Sometimes not even family members match. I'm just overwhelmed by all of it. And like I said, I feel honored."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.