MONTICELLO — Elaine Holloway was told in January 2016 she needed a new kidney to survive, and that it could take up to five years to find a suitable donor for the Monticello woman.
But less than a year after being placed on a national transplant list, a donor was found very close to home.
In fact, he came from her own church's pulpit.
"In about November of 2016, after her need came up during a church service, I just really felt the Holy Spirit kind of move in my heart and just very peacefully and calmly said 'just throw your hat in the ring.' So I did, and I never really had a qualm since," said Jeff Bealmear, the three-year pastor of Monticello's United Methodist Church, who will move to the First United Methodist in Olney congregation on Sunday.
After volunteering, extensive testing found him to be a suitable donor but not without risk, some of which was due to his weight. Eighteen months and the shedding of 60 pounds later, he was declared fit for surgery, and Holloway received one of his kidneys on May 3 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
"I'm feeling beyond blessed," said Holloway, a retired music teacher who looks forward to turning her attention back to her private piano students and a resumption of substitute teaching.
No longer undergoing home-based dialysis that required being hooked up to a machine 10 hours per evening, it did not take Holloway long after the operation to feel better than she has in several years.
"Because I had been a Type 1 diabetic for so long, I was already in Stage 3 kidney disease, so then in January of 2016 it went over the top and both kidneys failed to about 5 to 10 percent function," said Holloway, a native of Bethany who was a music teacher in Argenta, Bloomington and Decatur prior to retiring in 2012.
"We had people praying all over the place," she added, noting that a "Find Elaine a Kidney" Facebook page was even started. "Near the end, I was feeling those prayers. I was really feeling it. It was wonderful."
'No greater love'
But she still had no idea the fulfillment of those spiritual appeals would come in the form of her own pastor until Bealmear showed up on her doorstep in November 2016, offering to volunteer.
"Since I had been in several of his Bible studies, I had gotten to know him pretty well, although he'd only been at our church a short time when all this transpired. He had come to our home on hearing my need and asked what he could do. He was my blood type (O+) and a perfect match," she said.
So Bealmear became the Biblical good neighbor and crossed the road to help his parishioner. It also helped him follow in the footsteps of another New Testament scripture.
"John 15:13 says, 'No greater love is there for a friend than to lay their life down," he said.
Although he was a good match, Bealmear was initially turned down as a donor when a possible heart issue was found. After wearing a heart monitor for a time, those concerns were alleviated.
He used modified no-carb, no-sugar diets to shed those 60 pounds in 18 months, and said he'd like to lose 30 pounds more.
Bealmear went home two days after the kidney-removal surgery, and estimates he is about 90 percent recovered. Doctors say the recovery period for kidney donors is approximately two months.
As for Holloway, she returned home four days after her surgery with 26 staples and lift restrictions. The staples have been removed, but she will need to wear a mask while outside her home for a few months as her white blood cell count catches up.
She also hopes to resume singing in a community chorus that performs at area nursing homes, something she had to give up to keep from catching an illness that would have delayed surgery.
One unique aspect of the surgery is that Holloway now has three kidneys, as the two low-functioning ones were not removed. The working ones, both for Holloway and Bealmear, will expand and grow large enough to pick up the slack.
Bealmear's young granddaughter started referring to the donated kidney as "Carlos," and the families involved ran with it, coming up with T-shirts emblazoned with "Team Carlos" on them.
Holloway added the medical team at Barnes is "top notch down there. I can't say enough about those people."
But her highest praise goes to her pastor.
"I can never thank him enough, but I will continue to try for the rest of my days," she said.
Bealmear jokes that he really knows how to make an exit from a church.
"I like to give going-away presents," he said with a chuckle.
Steve Hoffman is editor of the Piatt County Journal-Republican, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit journal-republican.com.