“Lord God, You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

This prayer, attributed to Anglican minister Eric Milner-White, is sometimes called the Prayer of Good Courage. It expresses well the attitude of a servant ready to live out God’s vocation in obedience. Though we do not always understand the challenges God has called us to, and they may cause us to fear and tremble, we know that the one who calls us is faithful, and we can never be snatched out of His hand. Rev. Matt Hoffman, pastor of St. Andrews Lutheran Church, Park Ridge, Illinois, exemplified generosity and courage when the mother of one of St. Andrews’ students faced her own need for courage, not knowing in the beginning, the path God would lead the two of them down— together.

 

How They Got Started

Ellen Totten and Rev. Matt Hoffman.

When Ellen Totten received her cancer diagnosis, she might have felt as if she were falling from God’s hand. She and her husband, Ryan, and their two children had just welcomed another daughter into their family. But a few short weeks later, Ellen became unexplainably itchy over her whole body. Medical testing and imaging eventually revealed that she had a rare autoimmune disease, primary sclerosing cholangitis, which had also caused cancer in her liver, cholangiocarcinoma.

The prognosis for this disease is not good. Depending on when the cancer is caught, five year survival rates range from only 2 to 15%, according to cancer.net. This news was devastating for Ellen. She loved her family, her work, and all the blessings God had given her, and now it seemed like they might be taken away.

 

How They Are In This Together

But even in the midst of such terrible circumstances, God was at work. As Ellen and Ryan shared what was going on with their family, church, friends, and others, they received an outpouring of love and support. Her extended family banded together to help as she received further testing and treatment. Others offered a shoulder to cry on and prayer. The family of God came together to bear this burden.

A PET scan in November 2018 brought some very good news: the cancer was contained in the liver and had not spread! This meant that liver transplant was an option that could potentially eliminate all the cancer and save Ellen’s life. Rev. Matt Hoffman knew Ellen through St. Andrew’s school, where Ellen and Ryan’s daughter, Jayne, attended. A few days after the PET scan, through a post on Facebook, Pastor Hoffman saw that Ellen was searching for a liver transplant with an O blood type. After talking with his wife, Anne, he called Northwestern and put his name on the list to be tested.

Two days after surgery, Matt visits Ellen in the ICU as both recover

As Pastor Hoffman stated, “I didn’t know you could donate part of your liver! It’s not something I would have come up with on my own, it’s not something I would have imagined, it’s not something I was hoping to do, it’s just, when the opportunity came, it felt like God tapped me on the shoulder and said, This is what I need you to do.

The rest is history. In February 2019, Matt was tested and found to be a match, and in April, he and Ellen underwent hours-long surgery in which Ellen’s liver was removed and she received 60% of Matt’s liver. Since then, both have been recovering, keeping physical activity on the less strenuous side. And Ellen has been cancer free ever since.

“The whole thing has made me so thankful. I’m so grateful, and I want to give back however I can,” Ellen said at the Chicago Liver Walk this past June. Hosted by the American Liver Foundation, participants raised over $60,000 to bring awareness and fund research for liver health. Ellen and Matt’s families walked with the “Northwestern Liver Lovers” team, which raised over $11,000.

Matt Hoffman and Ellen Totten were recognized at a Park Ridge City Council meeting, July 15, 2019. Matt received the Mayor’s Life Saving Award and the Park Ridge Police Department’s Life Saving Award and Medal.

At a city council meeting in July, the Park Ridge Police Department and mayor Marty Maloney recognized Matt and Ellen for their remarkable courage. A small crowd of people gathered to honor them, so many that more and more chairs had to be set up to accommodate everyone. Matt and Ellen gave thanks to God for blessing them through the whole series of events. Frank Kaminski, Park Ridge police chief, noted that the surgery occurred during Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. “I don’t know if you know—there’s some symbolism here—I don’t know what it means, but this was done during Holy Week. If you’re a Christian and you know what Holy Week is about, you try to figure out what the message is.” God works in His own mysterious ways to accomplish His will; through tragedy, loss, suffering, and disease, God strengthens the faith of His children, and He leads us all to everlasting life.

 

From the American Liver Foundation

Ellen and Matt’s families walked together in the 2019 American Liver Foundation walk at Montrose Harbor in Chicago.

Liver transplantation is a surgical procedure performed to remove a diseased or injured liver and replace it with a whole or a portion of a healthy liver from another person, called the donor. Since the liver is the only organ in the body able to regenerate, a transplanted segment of a liver can grow to normal size within weeks. Thousands of lives depend on receiving organ and tissue transplants, but there is a severe shortage of donated organs.

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Good Courage