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'A piece of me': Niceville mother donates kidney to her husband's cousin

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

Editor's note: Maranatha Horvath was inspired to share her organ donation story after reading an article about U.S. Air Force veteran Thomas Mendez's search for a kidney in the Daily News on Oct. 18. To find out more about donating a kidney to Mendez, call 334-320-6002 or leave a message at 334-322-1877.

NICEVILLE – Maranatha Horvath just came home from a trip to Virginia with one less kidney. 

Her organ donation started with a casual comment at a family reunion there a few years ago. There, she and her husband, Joshua Horvath, were first faced with his cousin’s medical issues surrounding her type 1 diabetes. The Niceville couple knew but didn’t understand the extent until they saw Samantha Shaffer, 36, in person with bandages on her hands and feet from infections.

Samantha Shaffer (left) received a kidney donation from her cousin's wife, Maranatha Horvath of Niceville.

It was difficult for Horvath, 32, to see someone in her age group battle health problems, she said.

Shaffer’s mother candidly mentioned Shaffer would need a kidney someday because her kidneys had been declining for several years.

“I said, ‘What blood type is she?’” Horvath said. “They said, ‘O negative.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy. Maybe she can have my kidney one day.’ I hadn’t even thought of it up to that point, so it seems rash to say that. But, to be forthright, I’m a Christian and I believe it’s a sacrifice worth taking, led by the example of Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins. That’s what we believe. I just thought, ‘Maybe it could be me.’ ”

Maranatha Horvath poses with her husband Joshua Horvath at the hospital.

That "maybe" turned into a "yes" Oct. 5.

Today, Horvath is healthy at home with her three children and one less kidney, and Shaffer is doing well in the hospital. The doctors were initially concerned Shaffer's body was rejecting the kidney, but recently realized her symptoms were not a sign of rejection, but actually too many anti-rejection drugs, indicating the kidney was a good match, Horvath said.

'A piece of me'

Horvath didn’t know Shaffer that well; they were acquaintances at best.            

She certainly never imagined they would share a kidney. But hearing they shared a blood type was a message Horvath couldn’t ignore.

More:Saving Thomas Mendez: U.S. Air Force veteran seeks kidney donor to stay alive

“The moment I realized I was the same blood type as her, for that whole year I started praying, ‘OK, God, prepare me. If my kidney is meant to be in her body someday, prepare me to be willing and able and I’ll be healthy,’ ” Horvath said.

A year went by and Horvath was scrolling Facebook when she saw Shaffer’s post explaining she was in stage five of kidney failure and needed a transplant. Shaffer, a quiet person, doesn’t normally share much on social media, Horvath said.

Horvath messaged her immediately.

“A lot of people reached out to her even on that Facebook message and said, ‘Hey, I’m willing to get tested,’ but it’s hard for people to go through with that," Horvath said. "It’s asking for a major thing. I think God even led me to push her to push me through. I was like, ‘I can understand that this is a big deal to ask somebody to give up an organ, but I want you know I feel 100% solid and good about at least about trying. If it’s God’s will, it’s God’s will.’ She’s a Christian, too.”

They started the process of blood tests and other health tests in May.

“In August, I had to go up to Virginia to have more in-depth testing to make sure I was healthy enough,” Horvath said. “Thankfully I was. They test your blood several times together to make sure they’re a match. It really was smooth the way it worked out.”

The decision to donate wasn’t an easy one.

Maranatha Horvath displays good spirits while at the hopsital for the kidney donation.

The Horvaths have three sons: Matthew, 8; Judah, 5 and Ezra, 3. Surgery is always a risk, and Horvath wanted her husband’s blessing.  

“He said, ‘Yeah, God’s in control. I pray nothing happens to you,’ ” Horvath said. “He said the same thing that I say to everybody: ‘If it was you who needed the kidney, I would be overjoyed if someone stepped up.’ It’s always about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Him and my mom were nervous wrecks before the surgery, but I just kept telling them, ‘What if it was me getting the kidney?’ ”

Many people have praised Horvath for her donation, but she doesn’t need it, nor does she want it.

“(Shaffer) was brought to tears many times,” Horvath said. “I kinda try to laugh things off like, ‘Girl, it’s no big deal. You’d do it for me.’ Her mom and dad came up before the surgery and they were crying and thanking me. Really, it’s a testimony to me to following after God. It’s my pleasure. In my opinion, I could die in a car wreck tomorrow. I could get diagnosed with cancer tomorrow. Nobody knows what their life holds. So I don’t want to live in fear and not donate a kidney just because it’s a what-if.”

Since surgery, Horvath and Shaffer have long surpassed acquaintanceship.

“You instantly have a bond because it’s like, ‘We’re sharing an organ. You have a piece of me,’ ” Horvath said. “Our relationship is much closer and I love her so much more. She is the sweetest. Anytime somebody would be like, ‘Oh you’re so amazing for doing this,’ I’d be like, ‘If you met this girl, you’d want to do it, too.’ She’s that sweet.”

Horvath had help, too. Her sister took care of her post surgery, and Joshua took care of their children with meal preparation from their church family at Rocky Bayou Baptist Church.

“So many people sacrificed and helped out for this one thing to happen,” Horvath said. “It was really amazing to watch. The world is a dark place right now with everything going on. It’s so sweet to see these people putting others first.”

Samantha Shaffer received a kidney donation from her Niceville cousin's wife MAranatha Horvath.

'The gift of life'

The surgery was futuristic, Horvath said jokingly.

“They use a really big robotic machine where the doctor is not in my body himself,” Horvath said. “They make three incisions in my stomach where the robot arms go into and then they do a C-section type cut at the bottom of my stomach, and that’s where the kidney actually comes out of.”

Both surgeries had no complications, Horvath said. Shaffer will take anti-rejection medication for the rest of her life, and her body could still reject the organ.

“They said it started doing its thing in her body pretty much immediately,” Horvath said.

She knew what the most painful part of recovery would be. She had spent days scouring the Living Kidney Donors Support Group to prepare herself.

“They blow up your stomach with gas so they can see organs,” Horvath said. “It’s hard to get it all out when they close you back up. Little bubbles will sit below your diaphragm. It sits on a nerve that goes up in your shoulders.”

And because it's nerve pain, pain medication won’t help.

“The pain in the shoulders – it was intense,” Horvath said. “Moving positions would cause it to be excruciating. Like others in the Support Group, I knew it was not going to be forever.”

The Support Group ended up being one of the main reasons Horvath chose to go through with the donation.

“The amazing thing is that every single post that talked about complications or people who were in the direct recovery period where it’s really painful, they were like, ‘This is so worth it,’ ” Horvath said. “It was so encouraging, because, to make a decision, it was hard. I had a week period where I had to grapple with, ‘I could be signing up for a lifelong negative outcome.’ ”

Maranatha Horvath poses at her Niceville home.

The most common side effects she saw were chronic fatigue and headaches, but she isn’t sure yet if they will affect her. She does note that people should know if they donate a kidney, they have to drink more water and can’t take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, for the rest of their lives.

Horvath wants people to know they don’t need to have the same blood type to donate an organ. A paired exchange program allows would-be recipients with willing, yet incompatible, donors to match up with other pairs in the same situation to swap organs.

“You always think, ‘I’m not a blood type match. Well, I’m out,’ ” Horvath said. “If you’re willing for that person to not have your actual organ, you can still give them the gift of life. You’re potentially giving someone many more years that they might not have had without the donation, and it’s so completely worth it. All the pain, all the side effects – it’s all worth it."