Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo By Michael Alexander
Chris Wilson, left, and Cristina Zakis' husband Peter were in the Catholic University class of 1991. Cristina met Chris through Peter on campus and she was one year behind them. Nearly 10 years later Chris and Cristina and their families reconnected in the narthex of St. Stephen the Martyr Church, Lilburn. Cristina donated her kidney to Chris during surgery on Nov. 12.


Gift Of Kidney Makes Words Of Faith Come Alive

By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published November 25, 2010

This Thanksgiving, two St. Stephen the Martyr parishioners have truly realized the meaning behind the famous phrase from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.”

As the holiday weekend approaches, Chris Wilson and Cristina Zakis continue to recover from an operation that transplanted one of her kidneys to her long-time friend Wilson, after he found out that a bad case of strep throat had spread to his kidneys, significantly affecting the efficiency of the organs.

It was a difficult few years for Wilson and his family. In 2003, shortly after he and his wife, Kelley, had their first son, Garrett, Wilson began undergoing chemotherapy for an autoimmune disease caused by strep throat. However, the therapy was not enough to combat the disease and Wilson was told he needed to find a kidney donor or he could die. The wait for a donor, Wilson was told, was three years—possibly too long to save his life.

This was devastating news for the couple, who had just brought their first child into the world. The Wilsons began to pray about their situation and sought comfort in their Lilburn parish community.

“This church is the epitome of a community church,” said Wilson about his parish, which has proved to be a beacon of love and support after first learning of his pressing situation.

Then, in what some would describe as a chance meeting and others divine providence, the two St. Stephen parishioners, Wilson and Zakis, who had first met in college at The Catholic University of America in the late 1980s, reconnected in the narthex of the small Lilburn parish, some 10 years after they had last seen each other. Both grew up in Georgia and were amused that they had found each other back in their home state. The two families became close friends. Each now has two boys.

When Wilson spoke with his pastor, Father Paddy Donaghey, about his need for a kidney, the priest shared the request with the parish. But finding a match proved to be difficult.

It was during Mass at St. Stephen’s one Sunday, as Wilson and Zakis were both in the narthex tending to their young children, that Zakis learned of her friend’s situation and asked if there was anything she could do to help him.

Wilson said he needed to find a kidney donor. Zakis then learned the two shared the same blood type, making her a possible match. She realized that the operation could save her friend’s life and immediately considered the possibility, knowing she needed to discuss it with her family first. Her husband, Peter, who also knew Wilson in college, strongly felt that his wife should go through with the tests to see if she was a true match. It was a confirmation of what Zakis had already felt in her spirit.

Zakis sensed from very early on, before she even completed her compatibility tests, that she would be the one to give Wilson a kidney. She remembers praying for God’s will to be done and accepting whatever path lay before her.

“I felt such a sense of peace come over me,” said Zakis. “It was all in God’s hands, and I didn’t need to worry about anything.”

Wilson shared a sense of peace learning that Zakis would be his donor.

(Clockwise, from top right) Cristina Zakis was supported by her sons Ricky, 7, and Paul, 4, and her husband Peter in her effort to donate her kidney to parishioner and family friend Chris Wilson. Photo By Michael Alexander

“What are the odds of Cristina and I going to the same college? What are the odds of Cristina and I seeing each other after 10 years? What are the odds of us being the same blood type?” he asks.

Going through three rounds of testing to find out if she was a match, Zakis felt more confident with each test that she would be the donor. She felt hopeful about the whole situation, knowing it was in God’s hands and that all would be well. It came as no surprise to her when she learned she was a perfect match.

But both Zakis and Wilson continued to feel blessed at the outpouring of support from St. Stephen’s. The close-knit community rallied around the two families, offering prayers and support, as well as financial assistance since the Wilsons knew they had a steep insurance deductible to meet if the surgery was to be performed.

It was an amazing sight to see their fellow parishioners come together in the way they did. Wilson, who is very active in the community, initially felt a little awkward being on the receiving end of so much support and was humbled by how quickly people came to his aid.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion,” said Wilson. “The amount of giving in this church is amazing. … This church truly is a family.”

The Knights of Columbus Council from St. Stephen’s held a fundraiser for the family, raising nearly $10,000 toward the cost of the operation. It was a touching realization for the families to know that their health was a priority in their community.

Father Donaghey also held a special parish-wide Mass to ask for blessings for the pair as they prepared for the operation. The church was packed with supportive parishioners gathered to pray for the two families.

Described by Wilson as a “beautiful and solemn evening,” a very special moment came when he approached Zakis, who was serving as a Eucharistic minister, to receive the body of Christ. He said that it made him appreciate more how the church is the living body of Christ and how Zakis would soon donate a part of herself to save his life.

“Cristina is my angel on earth,” said Wilson. “A living donor means giving a piece of yourself. … It is the ultimate in altruism. That is true giving. It is hard to see in this day and age.”

The operation, performed at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on Nov. 12, was a success. Both are recovering at home, and their families look forward to spending this unique and special Thanksgiving together. Both recognize the role that prayer had in this situation and remain extremely grateful to each other, their families and the community that supported them through it all.

“This shows that there is a purpose to suffering,” said Zakis, who shared her story in hopes of highlighting the importance of others becoming living organ donors. “We have to accept suffering and allow others to help us.”

“It’s been amazing, the outpouring,” said Wilson. “The power of prayer is immeasurable. The power of prayer is real.”