Mint Hill man gets kidney donation after death of fellow church member he’d only met twice

From the hospital, Mark Kelly of Mint Hill has looked back at the chain of events that led to his getting a kidney transplant this week.

It happened because of a man he’d only met twice – Marlon Helms.

Both were members of Idlewild Baptist Church in Matthews, but didn’t know each other. A few months ago, Helms, who was a deacon, showed up at Kelly’s house to take him to a kidney dialysis center. Helms came back again on Good Friday.

On May 4, Helms died from head injuries he sustained while working in his backyard. He was an organ donor, and his family decided to donate a kidney to Kelly, who’d been on the waiting list for two years because his rare blood type made finding a match extremely difficult.

Helms and Kelly were a perfect match for blood types.

“Some people don’t believe in miracles,” said Kelly, 56. “But what are the chances of me meeting this man, a tragedy like this taking place and his wife thinking about me? And about having a 100 percent match? It was overwhelming.”

At age 35, Kelly learned he had a congenital kidney problem, but stayed healthy until 2010 when he suffered a bacterial infection. In February, 2011 he went on kidney dialysis.

Kelly and his wife, Chris, decided to perform the four-hour dialysis treatments at home instead of at a clinic.

“It’s not quite as hard on his body,” Chris Kelly said. “But it pretty much dominates your life.”

She’d come home from her full-time job in the staffing industry, prepare dinner and then at 7 p.m. insert big needles into her husband’s arms, beginning dialysis.

Doctors told Mark Kelly it might be up to five years before he got a kidney transplant.

Meanwhile, because of his fragile immune system, he’d stopped going to church.

Kelly, who’d been a member at Idlewild Baptist for 13 years and taught Sunday school, felt isolated.

For medical reasons, he sometimes had to visit a dialysis center and the church supplied transportation.

Kelly remembers his first meeting with Helms, a housing inspector.

“You couldn’t meet a nicer guy,” Kelly said. “I felt like I’d always known him. We talked about the church. And you could tell he loved his family a lot.”

On the afternoon of May 3, Helms, 58, was on a ladder trimming trees in his backyard when a large limb snapped and hit him in the head.

He died the next day at Carolinas Medical Center. As his wife, Cathy, stood in the hospital waiting room, Keith Whitener, senior pastor at Idlewild Baptist, walked in. Forgetting that her husband once talked about taking a church member to dialysis, she asked Whitener whether anybody they knew needed an organ.

Whitener told her about Kelly. Cathy Helms recalled the organ transplant team had reservations, pointing out difficulties such as getting at least a 90 percent match on blood types. But she was determined to give it a shot.

“Sometimes things can never be planned so well as when they just happen in God’s plan,” said Helms, who is a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital. “I’m thankful for the way it panned out.”

For Whitener, the week had been a whirlwind – Kelly in the hospital with painful kidney issues while Kelly’s daughter had lost twins at 13 weeks. Now, in the midst of two grieving families, “I saw God in everything that was happening,” Whitener said.

Kelly, who had surgery on Tuesday, faces a long recovery, but he’s ready for what his wife calls “a new beginning.”

Someday, he’d like to work for LifeShare of the Carolinas, the federally-designated regional organ procurement organization.

“I’ve got about 30 years left of doing something,” he said. “I’d like to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”