Lance Whitesel, 44, was a man living on borrowed time.
As he checked into the hospital in June 2014, the father of three
had a deep sense of impending doom. Born with polycystic kidney disease, Lance had
known for years that he would one day need a transplant in order to live — his
mother and grandmother had both lost use of their kidneys at age 42.
“I entered the hospital and thought it was the end,” Lance
recalled. “I was done.”
Though Lance had been skeptical of religion his whole life, he prayed
before he fell asleep in the hospital that night: “I really need you, God. If
you’re there, please help.”
When he woke up, his health hadn’t improved, but he was a
different man, at peace with himself and the world.
Lance’s dramatic inner transformation was a crucial step in his
journey to the Catholic Church — and obtaining an extension to his life. In
RCIA class, he met Rick Loffredo, a fellow parishioner at Church of the
Nativity in Burke, who had started recently to volunteer for the program. After
learning of Lance’s rapidly declining health last year, Rick volunteered to
donate his kidney. The transplant was performed at MedStar Georgetown University
Hospital in Washington last month.
“It is often said that God sometimes doesn’t answer our prayers quite
when we want but in his time. He has a plan for each of us and sometimes it
takes years for that plan to be revealed,” Emily Murphy, Lance’s mother-in-law,
wrote in an email. “He gave Lance the beautiful gift of faith now so that He
could orchestrate his meeting Rick through the RCIA program. I have no doubt
that this was His doing. The way the events unfolded was nothing short of a
miracle for our story.”
‘Am I going to die?’
The son of a non-practicing Lutheran mother, Lance grew up with
many misconceptions about the Catholic Church.
Lance Whitesel (right) and his dog, Peppa, visit with Rick Loffredo last weekend. Rick donated his kidney to Lance, a fellow parishioner at Church of the Nativity in Burke, Jan. 31. COURTESY PHOTO
“My mother was probably what you would call a classic
anti-Catholic,” he said. “She didn’t like the church at all, for unfounded
reasons, but that was what was instilled into me.”
Lance’s college sweetheart, Jennifer, challenged many of those
beliefs after they met at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. A
cradle Catholic, she tried to explain Catholic teachings, but Lance would often
push back. When the two became engaged, he agreed that future children would be
raised in the Catholic faith. The arrangement worked out, with a lot of
discussion, compromise and help from a deacon in Marriage Encounter classes.
Throughout their marriage, Jennifer continued to pray for her
husband to find faith.
“I just wanted him to have peace,” she said.
But as his 42nd birthday approached, Lance felt an increasing
sense of despair. “Am I going to die?” he wondered as his mental deadline drew
The numbers weren’t hopeful. Nationwide, more than 100,000 people
were waiting for a kidney transplant as of January 2016, according to the National
Kidney Foundation. The median wait time is about three and a half years — though
thousands wait much longer, die while waiting or become too sick to receive a
transplant. Most donations come from
cadavers, although a living donor is the most ideal option. And even if Lance
managed to get a transplant, his body might still reject it.
Searching for answers, in 2010 he began to attend Mass with his
family about once a month at Church of the Nativity. Father Richard B. Martin, who
passed away in May 2014, was always welcoming.
“I kind of melted whenever I listened to him and found myself in
tears a lot, wondering ‘what is going on?’ ” Lance recalled. “He said in one
homily that you have to open your heart to Jesus and He’ll come in.”
So Lance began to pray each day: “I’m opening my heart to you.
Please come in.”
Pulling the rubber band
When Lance returned from his hospital visit in June 2014, it was
clear that he had turned a page in his life.
“Everybody could see it,” said Jennifer. “He was at peace.
Nothing got him down. He was rejuvenated. Prior to that, things would suck the
life out of him very easily.”
Lance decided to enter the Catholic Church, but didn’t tell
anyone he had started attending RCIA classes. He wanted to surprise his wife
when he was confirmed at the Easter vigil, though keeping the secret until then
“I really converted hard,” Lance said. “I used the analogy of the
rubber band, where you’re really pulling hard away — but once you let go it
fires back the other way. Right now I’m absolutely in love with Jesus. I
cherish this faith.”
Lance’s newfound fervor caught the eye of Ron Riggins, Nativity’s
RCIA director. “As soon as he entered the church there was a burning desire to
serve,” Ron said.
He recalls talking to Lance about “what special gifts and talents
God had given him … to build up the kingdom, to bless others.” Lance served as
a lector. He joined the choir. He got on the waiting list to serve as an
extraordinary minister of holy Communion. He became an RCIA sponsor. And the
thing that changed his life: he joined the men’s prayer group and invited his
The gift of life
One day last February, Lance didn’t show up for prayer group.
John told the group that Lance’s kidneys were failing and they had a few months
to figure out what to do.
Rick Loffredo, an RCIA volunteer and lector, had known that
something was wrong with Lance’s kidneys, but not the details until then.
“Right then, immediately, I thought about all the gifts God has
given me, such as life itself, a wife and beautiful kids,” said Rick, 62. “Then
I thought about what I could give to Lance. He has a wife and three kids, too.”
His blood type was O-, the universal donor. He went home and read
online about the transplant waiting list and potential complications from surgery.
Before Mass one morning in early March, Rick looked at the daily reading in the
lectionary. One verse stood out to him: “The way we came to know love was that
He laid down His life for us, so we ought to lay down our lives for our
A week later, he saw Lance at a parish Lenten mission, where he pulled
him aside and said it would be an honor to donate a kidney.
“Once I heard, ‘I want to donate,’ I broke down in tears,” Lance
A battery of tests ensued throughout 2016. Rick passed them all —
except the CT scan. Because he had multiple veins running through his kidneys, the
hospital declined to perform the surgery. It was too risky.
Lance said he accepted the result without worry.
“I did have days where I didn’t feel well. But my original
kidneys were still functioning a little bit … It was a great opportunity for me
to start placing more and more trust in the Lord,” he said.
After getting a second opinion at Georgetown, Rick was cleared
for surgery. In December, the doctor told Lance to prepare for the transplant.
A prayer answered
Rick’s recovery from the Jan. 31 surgery has gone well. For Lance,
it’s been rockier. He was readmitted to the hospital Feb. 15 for further
testing, although he was discharged the next day without any major problems.
Lance’s faith helps him cope. “I try to offer up my pain to be
united with Jesus on the cross,” he said. “But it’s a small price to pay for
what I’ve been given.”
Lance says Rick has given him much more than a kidney. He’s
taught Lance the depth of God’s love.
“He sacrificed himself to give me life and that’s what Jesus did