This article is © 2007 EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS
Date: Sunday, February 18, 2007 Section: Metro Page: A1 Edition: Final
Source: By JACOB BENNETT, Courier & Press staff writer
This is a story about two people born 7,500 miles apart.
One is a Christian minister, an Indian man born in Kuwait who now lives in Evansville.
He needs a new kidney.
Doctors told him he would have to wait -- five years at least -- before he could find a donor.
But the search was over in less than two years. He is scheduled to get a new kidney this week at a Nashville, Tenn., hospital.
The perfect match for his body turned out to be the perfect match for his heart -- and every night that woman, a missionary from Texas with the last name Pray, was only inches away.
More improbable is how Sam and Erika Meesala, 28 and 25 years old, respectively, say they found each other. How each twist and turn and choice and chance in their lives led them to meet and marry all those years ago in India, so she could be here to have a chance to save him now.
They'll tell you God has provided for them their whole lives, that along the way they were put where they needed to be.
But to really know how they found each other, you have to start with Saddam Hussein.
It was 2 a.m. in Kuwait City one August night in 1990, when 12-year-old Sam Meesala awoke to the roar of planes overhead, the boom of bombs in the night, the unsettling pop of shotguns fired not so far away.
He and his three siblings ran to their parents' room, where their father let them in the bed and hugged them and kissed them. He told them the sounds were just a training exercise. But Sam had never seen his parents so emotional.
The next few days were chaotic -- neighbors banged on doors and told people to hide, or raided the market to buy up supplies as if a storm were brewing.
Iraqi soldiers barricaded the streets, changing the names of familiar roadways to titles such as Saddam Street. The Kuwaiti TV station blinked off, replaced by an Iraqi station and a message from Saddam: "Welcome to Iraq. There is no Kuwait."
Meesala's parents were nurses who had moved to Kuwait for higher salaries more than 20 years before. For several weeks after the Iraqi invasion, they kept going to work at what was now called Saddam Hospital. But as the situation in the country deteriorated, and United Nations help had not yet arrived, the Meesalas decided to take their family back to India.
The Indian government was neutral, so Iraqi soldiers didn't try to stop buses full of Indian nationals from making the 700-mile trek across the Iraqi desert to Jordan. From Jordan, Meesala's family flew to India and their new lives.
Moving her heart
Could it be? Was that moving in 14-year-old Erika Pray's heart the Lord?
This was it. After years of searching in southern Texas, of trying out different churches that didn't feel right, this was the one: The nondenominational Church of the Good Shepherd.
A month later at a scheduled service, she walked to the front of the church to meet the preacher, and he submerged her in a tub of water.
"That was where I felt my home was," she said. "That's when I really gave my heart to God. It was the biggest blessing of my life."
Good Shepherd was heavily involved in missionary work, and her youth group made several trips to Mexico, 30 miles away. The adults often made trips to India, and when she turned 19 in 2001 the church was planning a trip to the small southern Indian town of Gudur .
They gave Erika and a few other people contacts there. She was to call them and ask what they could do and whom they should visit.
One of her contacts was a young preacher named Sam Meesala.
Arrival in India
Eleven years earlier, Meesala and his family had arrived in India without food or clothes or a car. But they had family to stay with, and for years his parents had been sending money back to a savings account in the country.
At 17, he enrolled in an Indian medical school, seeking a physical therapy degree. Sometimes in the afternoons, he felt too tired to go to class. He also felt God calling him to something else.
He started preaching at Christian churches in the area and began his own Jesus Loves Ministries.
Meesala came to know Erika Pray through phone and e-mail conversations over a 10-month period before she finally visited India.
It turned out they were exactly what the other was looking for. She felt a spark as they prayed together. He listened to her talk about dealing with her father's death when she was 5. He felt it, too.
"That's what I was looking for, a prayerful lady who sings and prays and loves the Lord," he said. "It turned out to be that she was the one."
They prayed on it, and decided to get married in November 2002.
The newlyweds thought they would be happy moving back to Texas to work as counselors at a children's home, but Meesala soon stumbled upon a job opportunity that would be too good to pass up.
A church in Evansville was looking for a married couple to be youth ministers.
After a game of basketball at the Metro Christian Center, cousins Darin Cook and Matthew Johnson decided to walk over to the parsonage and get to know the new youth pastor.
Within a few minutes of that first conversation, Sam Meesala was talking to them about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. His interpretations of the Bible connected with them so much that the boys, who had spent much of high school smoking pot and playing video games, decided to straighten out.
A year later, the cousins, along with their grandparents, Philip and Maxine Stewart, became charter members of Meesala's new nondenominational ministry, the Assembly of the Living Word. One day in early 2005, while the Meesalas were visiting the Stewart home, the group began messing around with Maxine Stewart's digital blood pressure monitor, which she uses often and had left on the living room table. Matthew was fine, Darin was fine, Erika was fine. Sam's was sky high.
Erika, a part-time secretary at a doctor's office, told her boss about her husband's blood pressure.
The doctor said Sam should go straight to the emergency room.
Delivering bad news
There must be some mistake. Though Meesala still needed a lot of naps, he thought he was healthy.
But now, this doctor at Deaconess Hospital was telling him his kidneys were failing? The blood test must have been wrong.
Doctors did a biopsy, just to be sure, and confirmed that Sam had FSGS -- short for focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. The part of his kidneys that filter blood are scarred, but nobody knows why. He might have had it since he was in the womb; he might have gotten it from antibiotics after a series of fevers when he was a child.
There isn't a good cure. He needed a new kidney, but doctors said it would take five years to find a cadaver match because his blood type is the rare B and, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there are more than 70,000 other people in the U.S. waiting for kidneys. He started asking members of his immediate family if they could donate.
By December 2005, the Meesalas found that there was a child on the way. But Sam's symptoms were finally kicking in -- restless legs, nausea. And his dialysis machine, which filters the wastes and toxins from his blood, wasn't working .
"I thought I would die," Meesala said. "I literally gave up."
The couple had pinned their hopes on Sam's brother, Steven, who was hoping to fly in from India to give up one of his kidneys . But there was too much legal red tape, and he wasn't going to be able to make it in anytime soon.
Meesala's parents wanted to donate, but doctors wanted younger kidneys. His sister Sheeba, who lives in California, considered donating, but she and her husband were afraid there would be too many complications, the Meesalas said.
Erika Meesala had said all along she would donate if she would be a match, but she couldn't while she was pregnant. Anyway, she wasn't a good blood type match, or so she thought -- until that phone call with her mother.
"`Don't you remember?'" she recalls her mother saying. "`You're O-positive.'"
It's not always an easy decision to donate a kidney.
Sure, most people are born with two when they only need one, and the risks of the surgery itself are low, at least as far as surgeries go. But many people can't bring themselves to do it, transplant experts say. There are too many "what-ifs."
"If she should come up with kidney disease, or if she's in an accident and her kidney is damaged, she's going to find herself in need of the gift that she gave to her husband," said Sam Davis, the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization director of professional services.
Erika Meesala did not struggle with the decision to try as soon as her body had healed from the June birth of their son, Joshua.
"That was the only thing I could think of, was keeping him alive and making sure he sees Joshua grow up," she said.
She put herself through the battery of tests doctors use to determine if she would be a good match for her husband and if she could physically withstand the procedure.
Doctors at Vanderbilt Hospital, where they chose to have the surgery, decided they were a good match.
"We're absolutely thrilled that they match," said Verna Johnson, transplant coordinator of the hospital's kidney and pancreas program.
Surgery on ThursdayOn Thursday, Sam and Erika Meesala will be placed in the same operating room, tended to by two surgical teams.
First, doctors will cut Erika, then Sam, and then take one of her kidneys and attach it to arteries and veins in her husband's lower abdomen. They will leave his kidneys, which have shriveled.
The surgery takes three to six hours and will require a few days of recovery. With luck, the new kidney will give Sam an extra 10 to 15 years before he needs another transplant. He will have to take anti-rejection drugs constantly, but he hopes the new kidney gives him the energy to be himself again.
"After that, we truly believe that normalcy will come back," he said. "I don't know what it feels like to be normal. I've had a bad kidney my whole life."
Both Erika and Sam have thought about what they will say before doctors put them to sleep.
"I'm sure I'll be emotional at the time," Sam said. "We came this far with God's help. I'm going to say thanks for everything, and this is a great thing you're doing for me."
Her gift should allow another chapter in the story of the minister and the missionary, who started life thousands of miles apart and ended up side by side, she sharing a part of herself so they could continue to share a life.