Sarah Lothian meets a woman who made an extraordinary sacrifice...because she is a Christian.
As 2012 dawned, a British Christian found herself at the centre of a secular media frenzy, and reached millions worldwide with the gospel message of compassion and hope. The woman in question is not a well-known Christian ‘name’; neither does she run a global mission. Veronica Buttigieg is just an ‘ordinary’ believer who says God told her to do an extraordinary thing.
When she was invited to a friend’s barbecue, Veronica had no idea it would change her life. But there she met a woman called Manoly Viravong, who said she was in desperate need of a new kidney. Within minutes Veronica had offered one of hers, sparking a chain of events that led to a successful transplant operation in July 2011.
Just after Christmas 2011, Veronica and Manoly were featured in a local newspaper article about organ donors. The story was then picked up by the national press who took the line ‘Woman donates kidney to stranger she met at a party’.
‘After we appeared on the six o’clock news, the phone went crazy,’ Veronica explains. The story went ‘viral’, and reached South America, China and Australia. In all her interviews, when Veronica was asked the inevitable ‘Why did you do it?’ she stated her truth quietly and clearly: ‘Because I am a Christian.’Down to earth
The 54-year-old teacher and mother-of-two is surprisingly down to earth about her extraordinary gift and subsequent media attention. ‘As soon as I said what I said at the party, I knew in my heart that it was going to happen,’ she says. ‘I knew that it was going to be successful and that we’d be a match. I knew that Manoly would be well and that God would be glorified through it.
‘I had met Manoly a couple of times before at parties and I can’t remember exactly how the conversation first started. But we were outside. Our friends have the most beautiful house and gardens and I remember thinking how idyllic it was. And there was this lady and she was saying how she needed a kidney. I remember looking at her and I thought, “She’s a beautiful lady and has a lovely husband and kids”, and there I was with my lovely husband and kids. And I thought if it was one of them who needed it, I would be desperate for someone to come forward and volunteer. And I just felt God say to me “Go for it, girl”.
‘So I did, and I just said it. I said, “Well, I’d like to give you one of mine”, and I did a gesture with my hands – “Here it is”. And so we stayed for the rest of the party, our two families just chatting and getting to know each other for a bit. She gave me her contact details, then the next day I phoned her because I wanted her to know it was a serious offer, and asked her to get the ball rolling.’Peace and calm
Veronica smiles: ‘At this time she thought there was no way it would work, and lots of other people thought that too, because we’re a completely different ethnic group; we’re not family. And, at first I did get quite a bit of opposition to what I was doing. But I knew. It all happened quite quickly after that. There was a whole range of tests to check we were compatible and then there was a six-hour kidney function test. I had to tell my boss what I was doing and I knew she would understand.
‘I went into hospital on the first day of the summer holidays and we had the operation on the Tuesday. They cut you with a machine and then the surgeon reaches in with his hand to take the kidney.
‘I felt a total peace and calm about it, and I felt excited. “This is great,” I thought. “I’m going to do this. I’m going to save someone’s life. What a privilege to be able to do that.”
‘One night I did wake up sobbing and it was because I thought I’d let her down; I’d had a dream that I hadn’t gone through with it.
‘My family were so supportive, and everyone at my church – a lovely family of people of all ages – was completely behind me. I felt surrounded by prayer. Even on the morning of the operation I knew that loads of my Christian friends were praying for me, and I felt totally calm and at peace, absolutely fine; I had thought maybe on that morning I’d be shaking and nervous.’'I'm a Christian'
Veronica was in hospital for a week after the transplant, and three months later she was back at work. At the time she worked as a hospital schoolteacher near her hometown in Essex, and last Christmas the communications team gave the story to the local paper. It appeared under the strapline ‘The gift of life’.
‘It was on the front page of the local paper, and after that the phone never stopped ringing,’ Veronica recalls. ‘Hello, it’s the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, the BBC, Radio Five, ITN, and it went on and on and on. It was a crazy couple of days. The story went round the world.
‘ITV came and did an interview at my house. Manoly came round, and that ran on the six and ten [o’clock] news. We did This Morning, the breakfast news and more for the BBC. We saw articles about us on Chinese newspaper websites, and when the Daily Mail put their piece online there were responses from people in Canada. It was a very strange and manic time.
‘I just think it gave me an opportunity to talk about my faith…when you’re on the telly like that and millions of people are watching… I just thought, “Well, you’ve got to say something, girl, because there you are, you’ve got that chance.” And so I just wanted to say it very simply, because I’ve got a very simple childlike faith, so I said, “I’m a Christian. I felt God say to me to do this, and this is what I did.”
‘I wasn’t preaching, I was just being me.’So blessed
‘Some of the media coverage made what I did sound very sensational, but if anyone is thinking of donating, I would recommend it. It was ever such a small sacrifice to make for that family to get their mum back.
‘Manoly and I and her family have all become really good friends, and our four kids all get on so well together. In fact, we went on holiday together, out to Laos which is where Manoly is from. It was amazing.
‘I have been so blessed through this. I just said that one sentence, and Manoly’s life has changed, and my life has changed, and so have the lives of our families. For me, hearing from God was a simple, straightforward thing. I just felt it in my heart. I didn’t hear a voice booming, but I felt it with a conviction, and then you just go with it; you’ve just got to step out in faith.’