Dickson gets to know his brother the hard way


MOUNT PLEASANT — Mark C. Dickson wanted to know his older brother better, but didn’t realize what he’d have to go through to accomplish that goal. He had to save his brother’s life.

Mark was 7 when John went off to the war in Vietnam as a teen-ager. Thirty years later, the two brothers talked for weeks and became closer than ever before as they recovered from kidney transplant surgery together. John’s kidneys had failed as a consequence of polycystic kidney disease, and he was dying from renal poisoning when Mark gave him one of his own kidneys. A human being needs at least one healthy kidney to survive; both Dickson brothers now have that minimal capacity. The transplant was done in May 1998, and the two are doing well.

“It was a simple joy,” Mark said. “I don’t want to forget how special those moments were, getting well together, sharing in my brother’s life.”

He and one of John’s other brothers, Paul, turned out to be perfect matches for organ donation following many involved tests. During the long, stressful wait for the surgery, Paul and Mark decided between themselves that Mark would go under the scalpel while Paul would be a back-up for both his brothers. “They duked it out,” according to John’s wife. Mark, the pastoral associate at Christ Our King Church, didn’t hesitate to make his fateful decision, but admits it caused repercussions that tested his own strong faith.

“It’s easy to say ‘trust in God’ when you’re in church work, but I was scared thinking about the operation. I’d never had any kind of surgery before. This gritty experience helped me come around to really trusting in God,” he said.

The transplant operation took place at Vanderbilt University Medical Hospital in Nashville, the family home. Even though she calls Mark’s donation “unbelievable,” Mary Ann Dickson was not surprised that he made the sacrifice. She has been married to John for 17 years and knows the Dicksons well.

“The family is like that,” she said. “They always pull together.”

The patriarch of the clan is William Dickson, an ordained deacon and the ecumenical and interfaith representative for the Diocese of Nashville. Mark said he drew strength from his parents and their close-knit family, and from his own wife and child. Diane, a social worker, and Katie, 8, stayed with him at the hospital. Diane was at first hesitant about the operation, he said, concerned about any risk to his health, but then became a strong supporter of his decision. She and their daughter were his first line of defense in the healing process. He remembers once through a haze of pain a vision of his child standing at the door to his hospital room saying loudly: “Nurse, my daddy needs his pain pills, now.”

Mark Dickson also drew strength from parishioners at Christ Our King and from fellow Cursillistas. He feels blessed.

“I’ve got the best job in the world and I’m glad to be back at it full-time. The Cursillo people and the church people have been a great support to me personally, as well as to my ministry here,” Mark Dickson said.

Another mode of support came from a man who knows the value of organ donation from John’s perspective. Father Tom Vigliotta, a Franciscan whose older brother, Dennis, gave him a kidney 11 years ago, became a spiritual advisor to Mark during his ordeal. He told him of the anguish he felt even broaching the subject of an organ donation to his six siblings.

“There was real fear. Four of them went for blood tests, the other two came to me and said that there was no point in even taking the first test; they just could not do it. It was sad, but it was a beautiful moment. They had to face their own limitations and they gave me their honesty,” Father Vigliotta said.

Mark did not have to face that particular limitation. He said that the decision to donate his organ was natural: “It came naturally, quickly. It’s a matter of having enough faith and enough confidence in medical technology.”

John, however, had to face the same sense of dread in asking someone you love to jeopardize his life for you. He too had to ask himself that if the roles were reversed, if he was in perfect health, would he risk that for his sibling? Before the operation that saved Vigliotta’s life, a relative asked him how he could put a loved one in such peril; the question threw the Franciscan into an abyss of remorse. John knows the feeling.

“It makes you feel guilty, inasmuch as the donor undergoes a lot more pain afterwards than the recipient. And it was tough on Mark’s wife, watching her perfectly healthy husband undergo the dangerous surgery,” John said. “I thank him all the time for what he did. We make jokes about it, but I wouldn’t be talking to you if he hadn’t done it.”

Before the transplant, John was near death; toxins had fogged his brain, and he was so weak he could barely walk. The morning after the operation he felt alert, and today he works six days a week as a fishery salesman on the docks of New Jersey. He appreciates the difference his brother’s kidney means to him.

“You get a second chance at life,” he said. “Spiritually, something like this makes you feel closer to God.”

Mark Dickson feels exactly the same way. The brothers are now close following their shared ordeal. They chat on the phone regularly, and their conversations are no longer medical updates. They talk as friends; they talk about their new joy in living. Mark Dickson finally knows his brother better.