Last fall, Ellen Totten knew the Rev. Matthew Hoffman only as the pastor of the Park Ridge church where her eldest child attended preschool.
Today, the pair share a unique bond neither could have imagined just a few months ago.
In April, Hoffman, who leads St. Andrews Lutheran Church and is a chaplain for the Park Ridge Police Department, donated 60 percent of his liver to Totten, a young mother who was in need of a transplant following a cancer diagnosis. He was one of several people who volunteered to be tested as a possible donor after learning of Totten’s plight — but the only one who was a perfect match.
“I always had a feeling that I was going to be a match,” Hoffman said during a gathering at his home on July 1. “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.’”
“Matt saved my life,” an emotional Totten said. “I’m so grateful.”
Totten, 33, a Park Ridge native who moved back to Park Ridge with her family just a couple of years ago, was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis or PSC, an autoimmune disease, shortly after giving birth to her third child, Alice, in October, she said. Within approximately one week of the diagnosis, Totten received more devastating news: She had developed cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer that had developed in the bile duct of her liver.
Dr. Laura Kulik, Totten’s transplant hepatologist at Northwestern Medical Center, described bile duct cancer as a complication of PSC, with a liver transplant from a living donor as Totten’s best treatment option.
“With a living donor, once you’ve undergone your chemotherapy and radiation you can move forward with the transplant without the need for waiting,” Kulik explained.
Because the liver can regenerate, a portion of the organ can be removed from a healthy person and transplanted into someone else. But where would Totten find a donor, she and her husband Ryan wondered.
Through word of mouth and social media — including help from the Tottens’ church, South Park Church in Park Ridge — news of Ellen’s need for a living liver donor spread around the community.
Hoffman learned about it not long after he was told of Ellen Totten’s illness. Even though he did not know Totten well, he knew her daughter Jane and recalled being deeply affected by the news, particularly after visiting Jane’s preschool classroom that day.
“There’s a section of hallway between the church and the school and I just sat down on the ground and cried,” Hoffman said. “It was just really tough to think about what (the Tottens) were going through and what Jane could be facing.”
Later, he saw a social media post about a cancer patient who needed a liver from a donor with an O positive blood type.
“I remember seeing that and thinking, I know who that is,” Hoffman said.
Knowing he could possibly be a match, Hoffman considered being tested and talked to his wife, Anne, about it.
“She told me, ‘I don’t like the idea of you going through surgery, but if we were going through this, we’d want someone to help us,’” Hoffman recalled.
“I was really proud of Matt,” Anne Hoffman said. “Everyone wants someone else to step up (in situations like this). You were the someone else.”
It took about a month— and a lot of testing — before Hoffman learned he would, in fact, be Totten’s donor. The surgery was set for April 17 — right in the middle of Holy Week, the days preceding Easter, which is an especially busy time for the Lutheran minister.
Hoffman’s doctor, a Catholic himself, recognized the dilemma right away.
“He said, ‘Matt, you’re not going to like this,’” Hoffman recalled with a laugh.
But St. Andrews and the Lutheran faith community stepped up, he said.
“The church was awesome,” Hoffman recalled. “We had all these guest preachers lined up. I had someone different for every service and I even had pastors I had to turn away who were willing to come and help.”
Hoffman’s father, a retired pastor, arrived from California to perform the Easter service that Sunday.
Hoffman admitted to being anxious as the date of the surgery approached.