another chance at life
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” —John 15:13
Mike Riemer tears up as he recalls the lives he helped save during his 30 years with the Mt. Lebanon Police Department near Pittsburgh, Pa.
Riemer, 55, retired five years ago and became director of Emergency Disaster Services for The Salvation Army in the Steel City, but he always knew he was on borrowed time, given a family history of kidney disease.
Last spring when his kidneys failed, it was Riemer who needed someone to save his life. Lieutenant Kate Esker, a Salvation Army officer, stepped up to donate one of her kidneys.
“Every night and every morning, I thank God for the gift I received,” Riemer says. Today, he looks healthy and energetic.
Riemer, who describes himself as private, announced last February that he was suffering from polycystic kidney disease, where cysts grow on and in the kidney and they eventually shut it down. When he was in his 20s, doctors had told him that his family had a rather tenuous medical history.
God’s perfect plan
“This is now four generations in our family with this disease,” Riemer says. “Three have died from it.”
In late 2014, doctors told him that he might have a year before he would need a transplant, but he actually needed the operation sooner.
“My kidney function continued to deteriorate at a fairly rapid rate,” Riemer says.
By May, Riemer’s kidneys were in total failure and he went on dialysis. He was looking at a five–year wait for a kidney and doctors urged him to hold a benefit dinner to raise awareness. He was shocked when 17 people came forward offering to help—including Esker.
Esker, 29, grew up in the Philadelphia Pioneer Corps and witnessed a giving spirit that made her want to be a Salvation Army officer—and an organ donor.
“For me, donating a kidney is just another way to give,” she says.
A long road
Esker and Riemer met five years ago. When she heard about his illness, she went home and told her husband, Lieutenant John Esker, she wanted to get tested to see if she was a match. They prayed for a few weeks before Esker called and asked Riemer, “Where do we begin?”
“I always say, ‘if I can help in any way, as a Christian, then I should,’” Esker says.
She underwent extensive testing, including giving 18 vials of blood. Results revealed that she was a match.
“The testing for me took about three months,” she says.
Before the surgery, Riemer would come home from dialysis and quietly sit on his deck to reflect and to pray.
“Just a complete sense of peace came over me,” he recalls. “It was incredible. I’m trying to understand it, but I think that was God’s way of saying that things are going to be all right, one way or another. During this period, my prayer life was amazing.”
God’s Word lives
On June 9, the day of the surgery, there was a 5 a.m. prayer session in the chapel at Allegheny General Hospital. Among the people in attendance were Commissioners Eva D. and Israel L. Gaither, former Salvation Army national leaders.
— Philippians 4:13
“That verse has been in my head throughout this whole process,” she says.
John 14:6 was also a comfort to Riemer, as he reflected on giving his life to Christ.
“I really wasn’t sure whether I was going to make it or not,” he says. “I was comforted in the Spirit, knowing that one way or another, I was still going to be OK.”
Esker went into surgery first and emerged with no complications. Riemer’s doctor came to tell him he was next.
Better than ever
I was pretty nervous, Riemer recalls. “I stopped the surgeon and I said, ‘I prayed for you.’ The doctor reached down and touched my shoulder and with his other hand he reached inside his shirt and pulled out a crucifix. ‘This goes with me into every surgery. You’re going to be fine,’ he said. The feeling that came over me was just unbelievable.
“I was totally relaxed. I was in good hands with the Lord and with this surgeon.”
The next day, Riemer was up and walking the halls and, while he did have a bad reaction to the anti–rejection medicines, today he tells people, “Now I have an incredible life. I feel like Superman.”
Riemer has dropped 28 pounds, and he recently swam 22 laps in a pool. Each week, he tries to bike 10 to 15 miles.
“I don’t feel great, I feel incredibly great,” Riemer says. “Right now, I literally feel like I’m 25 years younger. I’m enjoying life.”
Esker, who was in the hospital for five days, is completely healthy.
“There’s no real limit for me,” says Esker, who wears a “Donate” lapel button to promote organ donation.
Riemer calls June 9th “my second birthday.” His spiritual life has also been reborn.
“For me, it’s been the most spiritually enriching time of my life,” he says. “I’ve grown exponentially spiritually.”
Riemer says he has considered entering the ministry, but he also likes his current job as EDS director and the changes he can bring to the work. He also is a local school board member.
“I’m trying to wrap my mind around what my purpose is in life,” he says. “One thing is to continue helping people because it has had a profound spiritual effect on me and my family.”
God’s amazing creation
As with Riemer, the experience has deepened Esker’s spiritual life and given her new insights.
“For me spiritually, I think it’s just so amazing how detail–oriented our God is,” she says. “We can survive with less than 100 percent of one kidney. To know that I had two, and that I helped save someone’s life with one, and remain completely healthy, is to me just so interesting.
“Creation isn’t just what we see outside of us, it’s what we also see in us, both physically and emotionally. That’s where I’ve grown. I donated my kidney because God created me to be this way and I was able to do it.”
Riemer likes to use the Greek word kairós (opportune time) in discussing God’s timing. Reimer realized he was slowing down and wanted to leave the police department, but he seriously considered staying to bolster his pension.
Seeing with fresh eyes
Instead, Riemer applied for the EDS position with The Salvation Army—a move that saved his life. He also realizes that the Army often moves officers and Esker could have been reassigned, but she stayed.
“It all worked out. In God’s time and in kairós time,” Riemer says. “I also considered other jobs before coming here. It would have been a lot more money, but I wouldn’t have the kidney I have today.
“There’s no greater gift than saving someone’s life. In the police department, I’ve done that several times. There are people alive today because God had me in the exact position at an exact time. God has truly been alive and working in my life in many different ways. I look back and it’s so crystal clear. It just amazes me.”
by Robert Mitchell