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Mark Bennett Opinion

June 5, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute man receives kidney from younger brother

TERRE HAUTE — The act of giving often triggers an instant calculation of loss.

We balance the good feelings of benevolence with the value of our gift. A clothing donation comes with a receipt, so we can claim it on our taxes. “If I drop 10 bucks at that youth group’s car wash fundraiser, I’ll have to skip the donut shop on the way home.” Whether we offer our time, money or resources, it often comes with a mental pricetag.

Steve Gisel took a different view of his chance to preserve a life. Steve didn’t lose a kidney. He gained a healthy brother.

Ten days ago, a surgical team at the Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis removed Steve’s right kidney and transplanted it into his older brother Dan’s left side. Four days later, they were back at Dan’s home in Terre Haute, recovering. By Thursday, Steve and Dan were cutting up at a table in Starbucks on Wabash Avenue. (And holding their still-sore abdomens between laughs.) There was no sign of “loss.”

“I am still healthy, and now Dan is healthy. Therefore, we both won,” Steve explained. “And that’s the lesson we had growing up — you don’t lose something you had before, you gain something you didn’t have before.”

A lifetime of robust health for Dan suddenly began to ebb in January. The lanky 31-year-old started getting uncharacteristic headaches. He felt tired.

At first, Dan shrugged off those symptoms, his wife, Bethany, recalled. But when the pain and fatigue persisted, Dan saw a doctor. A couple of office visits and a round of blood tests concluded that Dan had IgA nephropathy, a disease that hinders the kidneys’ ability to filter the blood.The news came in a telephone call on Jan. 17, urging Dan to get to the hospital emergency room ASAP.

“The scariest part was that phone call that my kidneys were failing,” Dan said.

Stunned, Dan sent a text message to a circle of family and close friends before going to the hospital. Dan’s jarring message — “I’m going to the emergency room. My kidneys are failing” — popped into his 28-year-old kid brother’s cellphone in South Dakota. Steve was in the midst of a cross-country drive from Seattle to his home in Sperryville, Va.

Once the brothers spoke by phone, Steve made an offer. “He said, ‘If you ever need a kidney, I’ve got two,’” Dan recalled.

Steve brought up the idea. “I didn’t want Dan to have to ask,” he said.

They, and their younger sister, Katie, grew up in Midland, Mich., near Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron, the sons of a pastor and a homemaker. Four grades in school separated Dan and Steve. Asked Thursday about their closeness back then, they grinned at each other, Steve made a wisecrack, and Dan explained, “I just tried to impart wisdom to him.”

But, eventually, their kinship deepened after they’d graduated from college and settled in Grand Rapids. A job in the sports information department at Indiana State University in 2003 led Dan to Terre Haute, where he later met Bethany and married her three years ago. In the meantime, Steve joined the Peace Corps and served in Ecuador. In that South American country, Steve worked with schools and community organizations, helping locals there with everything from self-esteem issues to agricultural projects.

They kept in touch, though. At one point, Dan flew to Ecuador and spent two weeks with his brother there. “That was one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken,” Dan said.

Seeing Steve in his role with the Peace Corps didn’t surprise Dan. “He gives up more of himself for other people,” Dan said.

The ultimate expression of his selflessness emerged on May 26.

The medical staff preparing both brothers for the transplant operation provided Steve with lots of information about the procedure, and verified that he felt no family pressure to donate his kidney, and wasn’t being coerced. Steve had the chance to back out at any point, and the IU Medical Center would handle the explanations. “They wanted to make sure I had any kind of out I needed,” Steve said.

Though he admits he was scared, Steve never considered changing his mind. Why?

“I love my brother,” Steve said, glancing down at his Starbucks drink, with Dan — wearing a golf cap — sitting across from him. That, and it was an opportunity to change another person’s life for the better. “I would’ve done whatever I could have to do that,” Steve added.

The blood match between the Gisels was ideal, the procedure worked smoothly, and both expect full recoveries to resume a normal life. The brothers are regaining strength. Dan spent four months on home dialysis, while awaiting the transplant operation. His circumstance was somewhat unique. Only 10 percent of kidney transplant recipients receive the organ from a live donor. Most recipients wait three to five years on a donor procurement list.

“Not everybody is lucky enough to get a transplant from a sibling like Dan Gisel did,” said Dr. Kumar Gaurav, Gisel’s physician at Internal Medicine Nephrology in Terre Haute. Gaurav estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 people in the Wabash Valley are afflicted with chronic kidney disease. Nationwide, a half-million people receive dialysis treatments, which now can be performed effectively at home, Gaurav emphasized. More than 100,000 Americans are on organ donation waiting lists, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The ideal donor has a stable mind and “the willingness to help another person,” Gaurav said.

That description fits Steve Gisel. “He wouldn’t have hesitated to do that for a lot of people, not just his brother,” said Dan’s wife, Bethany. “He’s a person of great character.”

Yet, Steve deflected compliments to his brother for being able “to confront your life changing in a moment, with courage.” He described Dan as a “really honest, blunt guy with a good sense of humor who is pretty straight-faced, most of the time, with his jokes. Really passionate about people and God.”

Indeed, after spending two years on the staff at ISU and three more at WTHI, Dan began working with Terre Haute Ministries, and now serves as director of Connections at Maryland Community Church. Feeling blessed with health and good fortune, he and Bethany often prayed to be ready for any adversity in the future. “You always had that on your mind — ‘If something tested my faith, how would I respond?’” Dan said.

Bravely, according to his brother. Once the failure of his kidneys was diagnosed, Dan displayed no pessimism or depression, Steve said.

“I was scared at some points,” Dan confessed last week, “but the thing I fell back on is that God is my rock, and he has a plan and purpose for me.”

That plan obviously involved a reconnection with Steve that will, now, last a lifetime. Steve, who works on an organic farm in Virginia, is staying with Dan and Bethany while he heals. His gift will remain with them much longer.

“He’s one of the most giving people I know, and not just because he gave me a kidney,” Dan said, quietly. “That’s just his lifestyle.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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