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The gift of life

Posted on Thursday, March 19, 2020 at 2:00 pm

Penny Bowen’s new kidney was just pews away

By David Knox

They were the kind of people who were friendly acquaintances at church, but not friends. Little did Penny Bowen know how that would change. Little did she know that the kidney she desperately needed was sitting just pews away from her.

Penny Bowen, seated, and Amy Gieske want to share their story and urge others to considering donating an organ. Photo by David Knox.

Bowen, a local Realtor, has IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease, a kidney disease that occurs when an antibody called immunoglobulin A builds up in your kidneys. This results in local inflammation that, over time, can hamper your kidneys’ ability to filter waste from your blood.

She had a transplant from her brother in 2012, but in 2019 doctors told her she needed another transplant, and from a living donor who was a match.

She was using every avenue she could think of to find a donor, including Facebook. In the end, though, it was through church.

“We went to church at first Baptist in Shelbyville. You know, you just kind of speak to people as you go in, you know, ‘hi, how are you’ – never knew her name.”

“Her” turned out to be Amy Gieske.

Penny and her husband, Jeff, had tickets to see Chris Tomlin’s Good Friday concert in Nashville during Holy Week. She had – for some reason — ordered two extra tickets.

That reason began to make itself clear shortly.

“We asked a bunch of our friends to go and it was a holiday weekend, nobody could go,” Penny said. “It was the Sunday before (the concert) and we’re like, ‘What are we going to do with these tickets?’”

The Bowens decided to invite that friendly couple that sat a few pews away.

“I had to ask our choir director what their name even was because I didn’t know,” she laughed.

Amy and her husband, Tommy, accepted the offer to go with them.

The next day, Amy sent a Facebook friend request to Penny.

“I saw where she had posted a few weeks before that she was going to need another kidney and what jumped out at me was she posted I can receive from an A-positive, A-negative, O-positive or O-negative and she really need a living donor. What jumped out at me was I have A-positive blood. We already felt it was the strangest thing complete strangers asking us to go to a concert and I immediately went and told my husband this is why God put us together. What if I’m supposed to give her a kidney?’”

She began researching the topic, and praying about it.

“On Tuesday,” Penny said, “she sent me a text and – I remember the exact text: ‘Hi, how are you? I hope you’re having a good day. I see you need a kidney donor and I’m A-positive and I’m in good health so how do I get tested?’”

The blood work said they were a match.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so sure of something I was supposed to do my whole life, Aimie said. “That includes getting married to Tommy,” she laughs. “It wasn’t an audible voice, but it was loud.”

Penny said she kept warning Amy of the bad stuff, such as how hard it is on the donor, which she’d seen firsthand with her brother. Through it all, Amy was steadfast in her decision, even as the coordinator was asking her up to the surgery. “She said, ‘You have until we put you under to change your mind.’

‘“Yes, I’m sure! Let’s hurry up, let’s get it done,’” she said.

March is National Kidney Month. Kidney disease is a non-communicable disease and currently affects around 850 million people worldwide. One in 10 adults has chronic kidney disease. The global burden of CKD is increasing, and is projected to become the 5th most common cause of years of life lost globally by 2040.

April happens to be Donate Life Month features an entire month of local, regional and national activities to help encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors and to celebrate those that have saved lives through the gift of donation.

Bowen and Gieske want to share their story for both reasons. They are now ambassadors for Donate Life Tennessee (

“One person can save eight lives,” Penny said. “There’s a tremendous need. Especially for living donors. A kidney from a living donor seems to last longer.”

Amy said God is working when we don’t even realize what he’s doing.

“We went to church for two years together and had no clue the journey we were going to take. That to me is first and foremost about our story.”

Now they are good friends, finding lots of things they have in common. Not the least of which is the gift of life.