Parish member calls donor, fellow parishioner 'hero' for lifesaving organ donation in December

DEARBORN HEIGHTS — When Martha Burch says she’ll do anything for a friend, she means it. 

In December, Burch donated one of her kidneys to her friend, Robin Cahillane.

Cahillane, 54, and Burch, 42, are members of St. Linus Parish in Dearborn Heights. They met through Burch’s uncle nearly 10 years ago. Soon thereafter, Cahillane started babysitting for the Burch family, introducing them to the parish as well as the preschool program at St. Linus School. 

“She was so good to my kids. She really felt like family to us from the start,” Burch told Detroit Catholic.

More than 25 years ago, Cahillane was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a disorder that causes cysts in the kidneys, resulting in the enlarging of the organs and, eventually, loss of kidney function. The disease is genetic, inherited from her father. Nonetheless, she was able to live for decades without any medical issues, checking in regularly with her doctor.

“I was very lucky,” Cahillane said. “I raised my kids, went to their sports, was a stay-at-home mom. I lived a full life for a long time since being diagnosed.”

Then, during an appointment in May 2017, the doctor noticed a change in her numbers. Cahillane had surgery and began in-home dialysis. Apart from the dialysis, she was able to function normally, but knew it was only a matter of time until she needed a kidney transplant.

Finding a donor who matched Cahillane’s O+ blood type wasn’t easy; she can donate her blood to anyone but can only receive blood from other O+ or O- blood types. 

“Her blood type is so symbolic of who she is as a person, to always give and never expect anything in return,” Burch said. “She taught me how to be there for people. She just does things on autopilot. She will do whatever she needs to for anyone, whether they know they need it or not. It’s true altruism.”

“Her blood type is so symbolic of who she is as a person, to always give and never expect anything in return,” Burch said. “She taught me how to be there for people. She just does things on autopilot. She will do whatever she needs to for anyone, whether they know they need it or not. It’s true altruism.”

Known to drop everything to help a friend or family member, Cahillane is also known at St. Linus for her corned beef, which she makes for the parish festival each year. She cooks for the parish Mother’s Day brunch and is a “pillar at the parish,” according to Burch.

In the months following her 2017 surgery, Cahillane’s family and friends came forward for testing to see whether they were a donor match. Burch admits she didn’t step up right away, partly because she didn’t realize the severity of the situation. Cahillane had maintained her positive attitude and, though the doctors were trying different means to improve her kidney function, she didn’t let on that things were getting worse.

“I felt bad that I didn’t get the testing right when I thought of it,” Burch said. “Sometimes we forget that while we’re waiting for the ‘right time,’ it’s the only time for the person who needs help.”

Two donors were looking promising, but then fell through due to medical issues that prevented them from donating. The testing process for a donor takes 6-8 months. 

“It’s a difficult situation because you’re not allowed to coerce people to donate an organ, but you also want them to know that they can live a perfectly normal life with just one kidney,” Cahillane said. “I said a lot of prayers, and everyone at St. Linus was praying for me. I was not ready to leave my sons, and I want to see my grandchildren someday.”

With each round of Burch’s testing, the two friends rejoiced when she received the green light to move to the next step. Her final test was in October, and after hearing the good news that she was a perfect match, they scheduled the first available surgery.

“I knew God would only give me what I could handle, and I prayed for Him to find another donor if this was not meant to be for me,” Burch said. “So with every test, I knew He wanted this to happen, and when the final test was a go, I had no doubts.”

“I knew God would only give me what I could handle, and I prayed for Him to find another donor if this was not meant to be for me,” Burch said. “So with every test, I knew He wanted this to happen, and when the final test was a go, I had no doubts.”

On Dec. 5, 2018, Burch and Cahillane underwent their respective surgeries. Doctors told them that Burch’s kidney responded incredibly well to Cahillane, “like a magnet to a refrigerator,” Burch said. She jokes that her kidney had been waiting for her friend all along.

The recovery for both women was quick, and aside from a few restricted movements, they’re already back to their normal routines. Cahillane already signed up to run a 5K in April. She is grateful for her new kidney, and for Burch’s gift of life.

“Martha (Burch) is my hero,” Cahillane said. “Doing something like this is being more than a friend. It’s like we’re sisters now.”

Burch urges others to consider becoming an organ donor.

“I’m grateful I was chosen to do this for someone as special as Robin (Cahillane),” Burch said. “I always prayed for God’s direction and what He needed from me. Sometimes when you’re called to do something, you don’t question, you just do it. That doesn’t mean other people don’t have courage to say yes to organ donation; it means you’ll know when you’re called.”

To learn more about organ donation, visit https://www.organdonor.gov/.