When a pastor in Illinois heard that the mom of a girl connected with his church had been diagnosed with cancer and needed a liver transplant, he made a remarkable decision. After talking with his wife, he decided to be tested to see if he qualified as a donor.
“I always had a feeling that I was going to be a match,” said Rev. Matt Hoffman, according to The Chicago Tribune. “I don’t know why. Maybe everybody has that feeling, I don’t know. But I really felt, from the time I signed up, that, ‘yeah, it’s probably going to be me.’”
Liver Donation Saves a Life
In October 2018, three weeks after giving birth to her third child, Ellen Totten found out she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). Days later, she heard that she also had a rare and aggressive form of cancer in the bile duct of her liver, a complication of the PSC. In order to stay alive, Totten needed chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and–“most critically”–a living donor.
People began spreading the word about Totten’s need, and Hoffman heard about her plight one day after visiting the classroom of her daughter, Jane. Even though Totten and her family attend South Park Church, Jane goes to the preschool connected with St. Andrews Lutheran Church, where Hoffman is the pastor.
“There’s a section of hallway between the church and the school and I just sat down on the ground and cried,” he told the Tribune. “It was just really tough to think about what (the Tottens) were going through and what Jane could be facing.” So Hoffman talked with his wife Anne about exploring the possibility of donating his liver to Totten. Anne wasn’t thrilled about the idea of her husband undergoing surgery, but said that if she were in Totten’s situation, she would want someone to do the same for her–so she agreed. After a month of testing, Hoffman heard that he was in fact a match and moved forward with the surgery.
Speaking at a city council meeting where Hoffman received the Mayor’s Life-Saving Award, Totten described Hoffman’s surgery as “not trivial.” It typically takes six to ten hours and has an extensive recovery. The aftermath includes healing from a painful incision, being fatigued for weeks, and not being able to lift anything for months, all besides the obvious risks involved with surgery.
Yet Hoffman was willing to go through that process, even for someone who was just an acquaintance at the time. “Matt and I knew each other,” said Totten, “but it wasn’t like we, you know, had a long friendship.”’ Hoffman also prayed with and encouraged Totten throughout the whole experience. “Anybody who knows Matt knows he’s extremely kind and positive and a very humble person,” said Totten. She also acknowledged that Anne Hoffman showed a great deal of resilience and empathy: “She demonstrated a lot of strength and was a part of saving my life too.”
Totten told Hoffman, “You’re part of our family now. Your family’s our family, and if you ever need anything from us…we are here for you. We love you and thank you so much.”
When he went up to receive his award, Hoffman emphasized the strength it took for Totten to first give birth and then go through treatment and a significant surgery. Her surgery took 21 hours, and Hoffman said they found out later that it was common for doctors to be uncertain whether patients in her situation would survive. But Totten is a fighter, he said, and “somebody I admire.”
Hoffman said he’s still processing the whole experience, but one thing clearly stands out to him: “We live in a community of fighters.” So many people supported them, including their families, the school staff, their churches, believers across the country, and even the police department. Said Hoffman, “I went into surgery with such confidence because I knew there were hundreds of people back in our sanctuary praying for Ellen and for me, and so when I went in, I felt like I was taking a little community with me.”
Hoffman concluded, “I got to tell you, you think you’re going to do something to bless somebody, but my wife and I will tell you, we have been blessed more than we’ve given in this and we thank you for that, and Ellen, it’s been an honor to be part of your story.”