“Ryan’s dead, but God is good.” How one family grappled with these simultaneous realities
It all happened so fast.
At the beginning of 2010, Chad Arnold was a healthy 38-year-old with a wife and two kids. Then the liver condition he’d been living with relatively symptom-free since his early 20s suddenly became more aggressive. He went from swimming laps during his lunch hour several days a week to being told that he needed a liver transplant in order to survive. Mere months later his brother, Ryan, 34, donated 60 percent of his liver to Chad in a fairly routine surgery.
Then, four days after surgery, Ryan died from complications, leaving behind a wife and three young children.
Chad was still in the hospital recovering from the transplant surgery when his father walked into his room and told him, “Ryan’s dead, but God is good.” In the year since, Chad has been grappling with two simultaneous realities — Ryan’s loss and God’s goodness.
A Rare Disease
Chad was 25 when he was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a rare disease that slowly damages the liver and can be life-threatening if left untreated. Chad dealt with the typical symptoms — itching, jaundice, weight loss — in increasing measure over the years. “I don’t know if it was my faith or stupidity, but I didn’t realize how sick I was,” he says. He knew that some PSC patients never need a liver transplant. Considering how active he was, he clung to the belief that he would be able to manage the disease as well.
But in early 2010, his symptoms got markedly worse. By April he wasn’t able to get out of bed. Doctors told him it was imperative that he have a transplant, and then mentioned the possibility of using a live donor. During this procedure, doctors remove the entire diseased liver and replace it with 55 to 70 percent of the donor’s healthy liver. Both the donor’s and the recipient’s organs regenerate within four to six weeks. Live donor liver transplantation has taken place in the U.S. since the early 1990s, and although it’s considered a somewhat risky procedure, deaths have been reported in fewer than 1 percent of cases.
Since waiting on the transplant list would have taken much longer and because he had numerous family members willing to be tested to see if they were a donor match, Chad agreed to pursue the live donor option. When his brother, Ryan, discovered that he was a match, he immediately told Chad, “It’s me. I’m doing it.”
“I think it was my mom who said to me, ‘What kind of a God would He be if we could understand Him? Would He be worthy of our worship if we understood everything about Him?’ ” — Chad Arnold
An Amazing Sacrifice
Chad greeted this news with mixed emotions. “You’re extremely grateful but you also don’t want … somebody you love [to go] through that,” he explains. Chad says that although they’d had their typical brotherly squabbles while growing up, he and Ryan had grown extremely close in their adult years. “In fact, I would say he was my best friend.”
His close relationship with Ryan also meant Chad wasn’t surprised that his brother would volunteer to make this sacrifice for him. “He was one to take life by the horns,” Chad explains. “And he wasn’t one you could argue with once he’d made up his mind about something. He was certain. I was really torn all the way through.
“The thing that gives me a little bit of peace now is that there were times when I said, ‘Don’t do this. If one of us is going to be in danger of dying, I want it to be me. I’m the sick one.’ But he wouldn’t hear it. He shut me up by saying, ‘You would do it for me, wouldn’t you?’ When he said that, I thought, Of course.”
Chad and Ryan also had the support of their entire family. They were at a family reunion when much of this decision-making took place. The roughly 60 family members shared times of prayer and communion together. “Everybody had peace about it,” Chad recalls.
An Unexpected Loss
Before going into surgery, Chad told the doctors the first thing he wanted to know when he awoke was whether Ryan was OK. So when his eyes opened and he heard, “Ryan’s all right. You’re both doing great,” he was ecstatic. And he felt the effects of the new liver immediately. Even in the initial stages of recovery, he could tell that his jaundice was gone and his energy level was better.
The doctors even let Chad see his old liver, which was in worse shape than anyone had anticipated. One of the doctors told Chad, “I’ve worked here for 13 years and that’s the sickest liver I’ve ever seen.” Before the surgery, the doctors told Chad he had six to eight months before his liver would fail. When they saw the state of his liver, they realized he’d actually only had about six to eight weeks.
“We want to make this point toward God and not make it about who did what wrong. It’s hard, but at the end of the day we try to move on and attempt to look at it all through God’s eyes.” — Chad Arnold
While Chad was absorbing that sobering news, he was also enjoying occasional visits with Ryan. Because Ryan had a minor bacterial infection, hospital staff didn’t let the brothers get too close. So they stood in each other’s doorways and talked. They’d even talked about watching a movie together the next night.
But soon Ryan’s wife was rushing into Chad’s room to get his sister, who was with him at the time. As they ran out of the room, Chad heard the intercom announce a code blue in room 601: Ryan’s room.
Chad ripped out all his tubes and sped to his brother’s room in a wheelchair. He watched, helpless, as they shocked Ryan’s lifeless body with paddles. The doctors were able to stabilize Ryan, and Chad was taken back to his room.
But shortly thereafter, Chad’s dad and several other close friends and family members came into his room with devastating news. Chad’s dad grabbed his son’s toes, leaned forward, and said the unthinkable: “Chad, I have to tell you that Ryan’s dead, but God is good.”
“Prior to all this, I probably would have jumped out the window in anguish at that news,” Chad says. “But it’s weird, the minute my dad touched my toes, my feet got hot. And as soon as he told me about Ryan, the heat started to come up from my feet to my knees. I didn’t say anything yet. Then the heat rose to my waist and the minute it got to my chest I began to cry. When it hit my neck I could finally speak. I grabbed my dad and pulled him forward and said, ‘I love you,’ and held him tight. I had an eerie calm about me that I don’t normally have, and I have to believe that was the Holy Spirit. I really felt the presence of God in the room the minute my dad said those words.”
A Spiritual Spiral
The family was devastated, and Chad, rocked by grief and guilt, launched into a gut-wrenching spiritual journey.
“I never thought about walking away from God,” Chad confesses. “Was I angry? Yes. Confused? Yes. But I got this visual of being in a small lifeboat on the ocean. God is my lifeboat, and He’s the only lifeline I’ve got, so I’m not going to poke a hole in this lifeboat. I’m not going to jump out of this lifeboat because I’ll drown. I can’t walk away from God. He is my daily need, my sustenance.”
Questions still surround the exact cause of Ryan’s death. There’s conjecture that perhaps he had a heart condition or some other unknown complication. But despite the grief and confusion, Ryan’s family still desires to see God glorified through Ryan’s passing.
“We don’t want to sit around and point fingers,” Chad says. “We want to make this point toward God and not make it about who did what wrong. It’s hard, but at the end of the day we try to move on and attempt to look at it all through God’s eyes.” Still, Chad describes the months after Ryan’s loss as a spiritual spiral — sometimes circling upward, sometimes down, ultimately traveling heavenward.
Through this spiritual trial, the immediate family grew closer. “We were close to begin with, but I think we’ve shed our judgments of one another,” Chad shares. “As a family, we’ve always had our little criticisms and issues, and this just stripped that all away. In heaven we’re going to see each other without that fleshly junk, and we’re getting a glimpse of that here now because we understand how blessed we are to have one another.”
A Time of Processing
Chad has chronicled his unique journey on his blog (cometoofar.com), and he says it’s been one of the most redemptive parts of his life-altering experience. He’s been humbled to read comments written by people from all over the world who have felt encouraged or renewed in their faith because of his vulnerable sharing. These faithful blog readers have upheld him in prayer since the touch-and-go moments before Chad’s body finally accepted Ryan’s liver and truly healed about five months after the surgery. Today Chad is as healthy as he’s been in years.
Earlier this year, Chad felt God calling him away from this public forum to a time of private processing. From that alone time with God, he says he gleaned three important lessons. “First, I learned I’ve got to be honest with God if I really want a relationship with Him. And that honesty includes my anger and doubt. I just lay it out there; He can take it. The second thing is that I either have faith or I don’t. If I claim to be a believer, then it doesn’t matter what happens because faith is blind. And the final thing is that knowing God does not equate to understanding Him. I can keep trying to understand God, but if I never do, that doesn’t mean I don’t know Him. I think that’s where a lot of people get tripped up and turn away from God. I think it was my mom who said to me, ‘What kind of a God would He be if we could understand Him? Would He be worthy of our worship if we understood everything about Him?’ I think there’s got to be some transcendence there, some inner knowledge that we can’t obtain on this earth.”
While Chad keeps seeking after God — wrestling with Him, trusting Him, finding Him in surprise moments of encouragement — he also takes comfort in knowing that while he doesn’t get it all just yet, Ryan does. •
Parents Sustained by God
Bob and Judy Arnold, parents to Chad and Ryan Arnold, went through so much watching their sons undergo surgery — and then ultimately losing Ryan. Here they share what they’ve learned through the grief process and how their faith in God has sustained them.
What were your thoughts when you knew Ryan was going to make this liver donation?
Judy: We weren’t surprised. When Ryan said he was going to do something, nothing would stop him. As soon as he got the call telling him he was a match, I heard him say, “Let’s get ’er done as soon as possible.”
Bob: We were somewhat concerned about it all, but we had confidence that God would bring him through it. The entire family met together at Chad’s house the night before the surgery and we had a good prayer and sharing time. I just placed both boys in God’s hands. I knew I could trust Him to be there.
Given that confidence, how did you respond when Ryan didn’t make it?
Bob: It shook all our theology at that point. Our confidence in God is so strong until we deal with something like that. I still knew God is a good God and we’re going to serve Him no matter what, but we sure had a lot of questions. Since that time, we’ve wrestled with the fact that we live in an imperfect world. God sees the whole picture. We see only our little viewpoint. Even though God could have prevented this loss, He didn’t — and we have to go on and make the most of it.
Judy: Of course, we were just reeling at first, thinking this couldn’t have happened to us. We had literally hundreds of people praying for us. We were standing on Scripture and God’s promises. We certainly did not like the situation. But we learned that we don’t have to understand God to trust Him.
How has your faith changed during this process?
Bob: It’s getting so I can pray protection for the rest of the family and still trust God for His perfect will to be done. It’s helped me to realize I don’t tell God what to do. My faith now isn’t arrogant confidence that God’s going to do something because of how I prayed. It’s a different relationship with the Lord, and I’ve learned it’s the relationship I rely on. I don’t call it faith so much anymore because it’s the relationship with Jesus that counts.
Where are you now in the grief journey?
Judy: We’re really missing Ryan a lot. But we’ve dug in and studied about heaven, and discovered all the wonderful things Ryan is experiencing in the presence of God. We’re more heaven-minded now.
Being with Ryan’s three boys helps tremendously. We live down the road from them and Ryan’s wife, who is amazing. It’s healing to have those boys in our lives. They’ll often call and ask if Grandpa can come over and tell them a hunting story about Dad before they go to sleep. He’ll go, of course. Those are precious times.
Bob : A lot of people have made inquiries about Ryan’s faith. I feel like we’ve been able to have some consolation in that God has brought a lot of people to know Him and know Him better through this.
What do you want people to know about Ryan?
Judy: He had a strong personality, but all his life he was giving. He became a lifeguard in high school. He always had a towrope in his truck to pull people out of ditches. His joy came from giving, and ultimately giving his liver. The thing that gives me the most peace is knowing that our future holds Ryan in it. This is only a temporary separation. We will all be together again one day. That changes everything.
Camerin Courtney is a freelance writer, author, and speaker in Chicago, Ill. Find out more at camerincourtney.com.
This article originally appeared in the August, 2011 issue of Home Life. Subscribe