papson-webSharing the gift of life

Kristen Kern Papson ’11 and Kevin Harper knew each other only slightly in January 2018.

Kristen – formally The Rev. Kristen Papson – was pastor of Erie’s Mount Calvary Lutheran Church. Kevin, the principal at Edison Elementary School, was active at nearby St. John’s Lutheran. Kristen had helped Kevin’s son Jaden prepare for confirmation, and both Kristen and Kevin were part of “Pub Theology,” a small group that met regularly at the BrewErie for wide-ranging discussions of faith and current events.

Little more than a year later, Kristen and Kevin have forged a much closer connection. On July 20, 2018, Kristen donated her left kidney to Kevin at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Kristen had begun her college studies at Grove City College but transferred back to Erie when her home congregation hired her as a youth director. She had previously considered careers in teaching and youth ministry, but by this time she had her sights set on the ordained ministry. She finished up at Mercyhurst with a major in religious studies.

After four years at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, she graduated in 2015 and was soon called as pastor at Mount Calvary. She had married Jon Papson just weeks after her Mercyhurst graduation; they have two daughters, Animor, who’s 5, and Evelyn, 2. Her life was full and extremely busy, but she never really considered not trying to help Kevin.

Erin Harper put out the word last January that her husband was suffering from kidney failure, was beginning dialysis, and would eventually need a transplant to prolong his life. She asked family, friends and church colleagues to pray – and to consider being tested to see if they might be suitable donors.

Within days, Pastor Kristen had called the transplant coordinator in Pittsburgh and passed the first round of screening questions. She scheduled a February visit to Pittsburgh for a battery of additional tests, from blood work and an EKG to a chest x-rays and ultrasound exams.

Before she made it to that session, a personal tragedy occurred that reinforced her desire to help. Jon’s father died in early February in an automobile accident. She recalls telling Jon as they drove to her Pittsburgh tests, “We can’t do anything to bring your dad back, but Kevin’s kids shouldn’t have to lose their dad so young. So if I’m a match, I’m going to do it.” Jon completely supported her decision.

Kristen says the surgery “wasn’t terrible,” resulting primarily in exhaustion and what she describes as a mental “fog” for the first several weeks. Kevin, on the other hand, quickly experienced renewed energy as soon as the new kidney started working. He’s now back at work.

Within six weeks, Kristen says, things got back to normal and she’s experienced no residual effects. “Sometimes I forget we did this,” she adds with a laugh. That’s unless she has an exceptionally long day. “Christmas Eve being a pastor is a long day. When I hit hour 14 I realized I was more tired than I usually am.”

Kristen has no regrets about her selfless decision, and she continues to be surprised that people are shocked that she’d donate a body part to someone she barely knew. “It doesn’t feel like that big a deal to me,” she notes. “To me it shouldn’t be that shocking – isn’t that what we’re supposed to do – take care of each other? It was just what I felt I should do. Why wouldn’t you do it if you can?”

Generosity apparently runs in the Papson family. When Kristen explained what she was doing to little Animor, her daughter thought about it for a minute before replying, “If your kidney doesn’t fix Mr. Kevin, he can have mine, too!”