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Springfield man receives kidney transplant from man in his prayer group

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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. 

kidney vertical“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 near. 

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 proved impossible. 

“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 father-in-law, John. 

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 brothers.”

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 said. 

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 for us.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017