Ben Baldwin is 32 pounds lighter, has more energy than he has had in 20 years and most of all, he’s a thankful little brother.
The Our Lady of the Holy Souls parishioner received a kidney from his older brother, Deacon Bud Baldwin, last month and it’s changed his life dramatically.
“Bud acts like it’s no big deal, but Bud saved my life,” Ben, 51, said.
Deacon Bud, 61, who serves at St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville, said “every one of my brothers and sisters wanted to give,” but situations prevented it. With nine living siblings, some suffered from high blood pressure, kidney stones and two — sisters Kelly and Polly — were not enough of an exact match to donate. Ben’s twin sister Pauletta had already donated her kidney years before.
“It’s kind of competitive. All along I wanted to be the one. I was the oldest boy. I felt like it was my duty. I wanted to do it,” Deacon Bud said, adding he was a perfect match.
While many have commented “you’re doing such a great thing,” Deacon Bud said he’s quick to dismiss the notion.
“No, I’m not. I’m doing what any brother and sister would do for a brother and sister,” he said. After all, for someone who averages about 200 to 500 sit-ups per day and has participated in CrossFit — a high intensity fitness program — for the past six years, this was hardly a challenge.
Ben Baldwin, whose daughter is a freshman at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, has been active at Holy Souls Church in a variety of ways, including as a catechist, RCIA leader and a member of the parish council.
In 1996, he began experiencing pain in his side. An ultrasound revealed cysts covering his kidneys, called polycystic kidney disease. He began seeing a nephrologist and was told that in 10 years, his kidneys would likely fail.
“I went 20. Mine was really a slow decline … my kidneys were enormous,” Ben said. “I always told people I’m not as fat as I look; that was my joke” as his kidneys pushed up against other organs, enlarging his belly.
When it came time to look for a donor, his siblings were ready and willing. The Baldwin family has strong Catholic ties, with many siblings and relatives active in parishes, including Beau Baldwin, the music director at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock. Their father, Warren “Bud” Baldwin, died in 2010 and their mother Polly lives in Little Rock, a member of Holy Souls.
His twin sister Pauletta Andrews, a parishioner at Holy Souls, was tested on blood-type alone five years ago for Ben and was not a match. Today, she may have been a match, but in 2012, she donated her kidney to the mom of her son’s friend that she had met just once before. She was a match in March 2012 and lost 40 pounds before the surgery three months later.
She said of her brother’s surgery, “I was super happy because it was saving Ben’s life. Ben has been so sick for years. I was so glad someone in the family was able to help him. I felt bad because I couldn’t, but as several people in my family told me I was an inspiration for them to get tested for Ben because I haven’t had any health issues since I gave my kidney.”
On July 19, Ben had both kidneys, appendix and gallbladder removed during more than eight hours of prep and surgery. The average kidney weighs less than half a pound, but Ben’s weighed 15 and 17 pounds. The surgeon placed the kidneys in a bucket, allowing his siblings who were at UAMS Medical Center in Little Rock for the surgery to feel just how much extra weight their brother was carrying.
“Since mine were so big, I was getting other issues, it was making it hard to breathe. They were the size of regular footballs,” he said. “… All my organs were pushed up in my chest.”
He remained on dialysis until Sept. 12, three days a week, four hours a day. A sister, Mimi Blackwood of Fayetteville, stayed with him at his Maumelle home, making meals that adhered to his strict diet and making sure he got in his required exercise.
On Sept. 13, he received his brother’s kidney.
“They said you’ll feel like a new person when you get that kidney. I immediately got color back in my face. I could have gone home the second day, I felt that good,” Ben said.
A week after surgery, Deacon Bud was mowing the lawn on his riding lawn mower. Then a week later, he used a push mower. He then began walking about 30 to 45 minutes with his two 100-pound dogs that “drag me everywhere.”
Deacon Bud said the hardest part of the process was not the surgery, but the requirement to not participate in CrossFit for six weeks.
“I’d be back working out if it was up to me. I have one more week and I can start working out,” he said Oct. 18.
The six-week waiting period was essential to prevent against the possibility of hernias.
“I’m going back hard and fast at it.”
While many still say they’re praying for Deacon Bud, he asks them to pray instead for his brother. He took to heart Jesus’ call of “whatever you do for them you do for me,” he said.
“From my standpoint you hope in life to do something to better someone else’s life. Ben would have eventually gotten a kidney from someone, but I like to think by giving my kidney I’ve helped someone else’s life. It just so happens it’s my brother and I’m glad it was my brother.”
For Ben, who has now lost 50 pounds, he thinks of others he met in dialysis and others in need of a kidney. According to the Living Kidney Donor Network, lkdn.org, there are more than 80,000 people on the kidney donor list and about 4,500 die each year waiting for a kidney.
“There’s a lot of people that could give a kidney. It’s an easy procedure. It’s the one thing totally covered by the federal government,” he said.
After the support and prayers from his friends, relatives, coworkers and parish community, the concept of respect for life has touched Ben’s heart in a new way.
“It was a big sacrifice,” he said of Deacon Bud. “To me, he gave me the gift of life.”
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