Hayden To give Hayden pastor Doug Zirkle the new kidney he needed to survive, Mike Markle had to overcome challenge after challenge.
For nearly a year, there were constant blood draws and urine tests.
There were pointed interviews with a psychotherapist, a slew of phone calls and complicated electronic forms that took the non-tech-savvy donor hours to fill out.
And some of Markle's family members were concerned about his lack of health insurance and the potential complications that could arise after the surgery.
But the challenges never fazed the 59-year-old athlete and longtime Hayden resident who tenaciously was determined to give part of himself to help the ailing preacher he has known now for 15 years.
And on Sunday, Markle saw the result of his selfless gift as Zirkle returned to preach at the Mission of Grace Baptist Church for the first time since the successful kidney transplant last month at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
“I'm just honored to be able to help someone who really needed it,” Markle said.
Zirkle's return had an immediate impact on Markle and the other parishioners at the church who were eager to embrace the pastor, who just weeks ago barely could walk because of his kidney disease.
The new kidney allowed the pastor to speak with a passion and a stamina parishioners didn't see very often when the disease kept Zirkle always feeling like he was fighting or overcoming a bad case of the flu.
And his entrance into the church at about 11 a.m. sent a buzz of excitement through the Easter Sunday crowd.
“It's great to see him back to being himself,” longtime parishioner David May said. “He hasn't had this kind of energy for a long time.”
Before he started preaching, Zirkle thanked his friend who donated the kidney and said he was feeling better every day.
He said Markle's gift came as his kidney disease was getting progressively worse.
“Words like 'thank you' are pretty small,” Zirkle said as his daughter Caroline smiled a few feet from him in the first row of chairs in the church. “I'll always be indebted to Mike, and he knows that.”
A little more than a year ago, Markle was embarking on one of his regular 45-mile bike rides along Routt County Road 27 when he heard of Zirkle's need of a kidney from a Steamboat Today reporter who stopped to take Markle's picture after just having taken a picture of the pastor and his family in Hayden.
Markle, an avid cyclist who rode his Moots bicycle to church Sunday, said he instantly became committed to exploring whether he could donate his organ.
“So right on the spot, I'm convicted, thinking it's a great day, and I'm healthy. The Lord goes 'Yep, you're the one,'” Markle said Sunday. “So for all of the 45 miles of my bike ride, I'm thinking, 'How do I get started. What's the first step?' I couldn't stop thinking about it.”
The next day, Markle called one of his doctors to determine his blood type and found it was a match with Zirkle's.
Throughout the next 11 months, he went through a rigorous series of blood draws, urine tests, paperwork and more paperwork until surgery day arrived last month.
Zirkle said Markle's tenacity that has its roots in him engaging in such sports as basketball, football, karate, cycling, golf and water skiing helped both men through the difficult, but rewarding journey to the operating room.
“Every time I was getting discouraged or losing a little bit of hope, Mike would say, 'We're going to make this happen,'” Zirkle said. “He was confident the whole way.”
As the men recovered in the same room after the surgery, the constant beeping of machines often spurred both to always ask each other "Are you OK?"
“It was an interesting bonding experience,” Zirkle said.
The men weren't best friends when Markle committed to donating the kidney last spring, but the surgery has brought them much closer together.
Zirkle said his parents in Bedford, Texas, now have “adopted” Markle, and that he should expect a slew of cards on holidays from them from now on.
Markle said he's just glad he could help out.
“I hate being sick for more than a few days, and Doug's been sick for a long time,” Markle said. “I thought I should do something to make him feel better.”
Zirkle was diagnosed in 1980 with Type 1 diabetes, which typically inflicts otherwise healthy children and young adults and is managed with insulin. He said Sunday that the disease can attack organs and leaves some people blind. In Zirkle's case, the disease attacked his kidneys.
As his kidney disease became progressively worse, the humble preacher was reluctant to ask for help.
His wife, Lisa, and several family members weren't a match for the kidney transplant. Other community members in Hayden also stepped forward to see whether they were a match, but none panned out.
“The more time that passed, the less energy I had to do anything about anything,” Zirkle said.
But as the preacher waited and grew more sick, the community rallied.
His congregation raised about $35,000 to help with medical expenses.
Strangers paid for his dinner.
Others plowed his family's driveway after a snowstorm.
“This community has become our family,” Zirkle said. “So many people did so much to help.”
Just two weeks after his transplant, the preacher was able to walk three miles around a track in Aurora.
Markle was back on his bike eight days after the major surgery.
Zirkle said Proverbs 20:6 best describes Markle's desire to help.
It reads: "Many a man claims to have unfailing love, but a faithful man who can find?"
“He's not just a good guy,” Zirkle said. “He's faithful.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com