By Barb Arland-Fye
CORALVILLE — Father Marty Goetz gave the gift of life to his sister for Christmas this year. Because of his selfless act in donating a kidney to her, Martha Riney is off of dialysis, feeling better than she has in years and looking forward to a longer life.
The first thing either one wanted to know following their Dec. 3 surgeries at University Hospitals in Iowa City was how the other sibling was doing and whether the transplant worked, family members say. The response they received was an answer to many, many prayers. What Fr. Marty will remember most, though, is when Martha’s three grown sons came into the hospital room and just said, “Thanks.”
Fr. Marty, the Diocese of Davenport’s 43-year-old vocations director, describes the journey to transplant day as not unlike Advent, and the gift that followed is the only Christmas present he needs. Martha, five years her brother’s senior, echoes his sentiment.
“Leading up to a final decision to donate a kidney would, I think, have some ups and downs. I know that once Fr. Marty knew he was a match he didn’t waver. What a Christmas gift to give,” said Bishop Martin Amos, who anointed Fr. Marty on Nov. 25, during a diocesan leadership meeting, in preparation for the surgery.
Three of Martha’s four brothers and her oldest son were potential donors, but Fr. Marty knew early on that he likely was the best donor candidate.
“I’m in good shape with the running and golfing I do; I’m pretty active. But what it comes down to, it’s family,” Fr. Marty said during a Dec. 17 interview with The Catholic Messenger at the home of his friend, retired diocesan priest Father Tom Doyle. Also present were Fr. Marty’s sister and their parents, Jack and Mary Ann Goetz, who live across the street from Martha in Keokuk.
Jack and Mary Ann had accompanied Martha and her husband Randy to a doctor’s appointment six months ago in Iowa City during which Martha learned she needed a kidney transplant. The close-knit family that shares dinner together each night knew something was wrong. Martha, after all, had been referred to Iowa City after a routine eye exam detected a problem. But no one was prepared to hear Martha announce, “I need to get a kidney transplant.”
“I was scared, I didn’t know what to say,” Jack said.
The first thing Mary Ann did was call Fr. Marty, “the one we go to for bad news.”
But she couldn’t reach him by cell phone because he was on the golf course.
His first concern after retrieving messages, he said, was for his sister. Then he researched on the Internet to learn what he could about his sister’s condition. He underwent testing to determine his suitability as a donor. He jokes about giving up a game of golf to do that. He also talked with two of his fellow priests, each of whom had donated a kidney — Father Walter (Wally) Helms, to a parishioner, and Father Rudolph Juarez, to his brother.
Fr. Marty said Fr. Wally told him, “It’s the greatest gift you can give someone.” Fr. Rudolph concurred. “And I would agree with that,” Fr. Marty says.
Prayer also played a major role in the preparation process, which Fr. Marty counted down by months, weeks, days and hours in e-mails to his sister. Family, relatives, friends and even strangers prayed.
“I had a lot of non-Catholic friends who asked, ‘Do you mind if we pray for Fr. Marty and Martha on our prayer chain?’” Mary Ann said. “I told them, ‘I would mind if you didn’t.’”
When she was feeling low or worried, Mary Ann would play back a message Fr. Doyle had left on her voice mail. “He told me, ‘I know how hard this is on a mother to watch your children go through this, but Marty said you can walk through fire. And you can call me anytime you want.’” And she did.
Martha began experiencing kidney problems 30 years ago, with the birth of her first child. By the time her third and last child was born, she was told she might need a kidney transplant some day. But that was 23 years ago.
When the day of reckoning came, she knew she had to lean on family. Still, “I didn’t want him (Fr. Marty) to have to go through with this.”
Martha told her husband before surgery that the first thing she wanted to know afterward was how her brother was and whether the transplant had worked.
Fr. Marty wanted to know the same about Martha. He had two fears prior to surgery: that he would wake up during the operation and, conversely, that he wouldn’t wake up. But prayer alleviated his fear.
During two talks he gave for Christian Experience Weekends in the diocese, he told participants that as a priest he’s considered a leader in the community, someone who prays for others. Now he was asking for their prayers, and that felt strange. “But after that, there was this sense of peace,” he said. And when deacons prayed over him during a deacons’ retreat, he was deeply touched.
“I believe it’s through the power of prayer that I got my sense of peace,” said Fr. Marty, who composed a prayer the night before surgery that rhymes with a famous Christmas poem.
For Christmas, Mary Ann announced during the interview, she was going to take a picture of Fr. Marty and Martha wearing red bows on their abdomens. The siblings protested, but Mary Ann probably will get her way.
“What better Christmas present? — The gift of life. There’s nothing else. You don’t need another thing,” she told The Catholic Messenger. Her husband of 53 years added, “Our family is intact.”