The Wind Beneath His Wings

by Betsy Willing

Last August at a family picnic, I first heard of my youngest brother's kidney problems. Robert had high blood pressure which was slowly taking its toll. He explained that someday he would need dialysis or a transplant. It seemed to be something in the distant future and I filed it back in the far recesses of my mind, until this January when he had to start dialysis treatments. The worst for him had happened. The reality of a bleak future hooked to a machine to survive had arrived. He now had the insight few of us will ever come to know--to make the most out of time given and not take a moment for granted.

When he asked me if I would be willing to donate a kidney, I said "yes." My answer was based solely on EMOTION because I knew if the roles were reversed, he would do the same for me.

I had no concept of what I had just volunteered for (kind of like saying you will swim a channel without asking how far to the other side.) My sister and I were the only two siblings tested, as my other three brothers were ruled out for various reasons. She and I waited anxiously to see which one would provide the better match. Out of six antigens, I had three, and she had only one. I think she was actually disappointed that it would not be her. She had in fact dreamed it was her. It actually was for the best as she lives in another state, has four children, a job, and is 7 years my senior.

More tests, consisting of blood work, X-rays, EKG, complete physical and talking with a bevy of doctors, social workers, a transplant coordinator and nurse were done to make sure I was physically and mentally able to donate a kidney.

I think it was at this time that I realized the magnitude of what I had promised. I had discovered that it is much harder on the donor after actually speaking with a woman that, two years prior, had donated a kidney to her daughter. How fortunate for me that both had been in the examing room next to mine. I was shown the scar (which went halfway around her body) and asked questions about their surgery. Broken ribs were part of her operation. The doctor assured me that they don't break the ribs now but simply remove them (the floating ribs) ! Broken or missing ribs? a mammouth scar? morphine? What was I thinking when I offered to do this? This was sounding worse by the moment. But, it didn't matter because I spoke with the woman's 17 year old daughter. That teenager did not fully comprehend the scope of what her mother had done for her, but I did! I knew then, I could do it for my brother, too! I hugged them both and thanked them for opening my eyes.

I knew I had to know more. I found Steve Blakeman off the internet and sought solace from him. The more I knew, the less I would fear. Steve was kind enough to answer all my questions and concerns. To him, I am eternally grateful! After all, Steve had been down this road and who better to guide me? He knew there was not a lot of information out there for us donors and it is totally different for the donor than the recipient. If not for him, I would not be writing this story. I want to be an advocate for others considering donating one of their kidneys. I was glad to be the one on the giving end of the spectrum, not the one needing the kidney.

The last test was a CT scan, done about a week before the now scheduled surgery date of March 12 th. I had to lie on a table while they concentrated the scanner on my abdomen. At one point they injected dye into the bloodstream which made me feel warm all over. I held my breath as they took more scans, and the whole procedure took approximately one hour.

The worst part of course is Fear, --fear of the unknown. Anxiety is fear's closest friend. I could think of nothing else. My questions spanned a wide range about pain, surgery, scarring, nausea, insurance coverage, what I would feel like minus an organ, complications and even my demise. I was going through a very complex psychological process, knowing I would soon be losing a kidney and my own renal reserves along with it. An organ that had resided in my body for 43 years. Still, despite the gauntlet of emotions, I knew I was doing the RIGHT thing. I had to give my brother a chance regardless of the outcome to either of us.

One week before...

It hit me like a ton of bricks. I received a packet of information from the University of Michigan Hospital where the surgery was to be performed. One of the suggestions was that we both make out a living will! I shook so hard I could barely read the letter. I decided to get out of the house and run some errands. I was still shaking in the grocery store and hoped no noticed how jittery I was acting. On the way home, I felt like I was losing it. Where was all my courage? I was like the lion in "The Wizard of Oz" --I had it, but had to get it to surface. I passed a church that places little sayings on a sign in front and they change each week. This week it said: "Courage is fear...after you have prayed." I cried all the way home and wrote to Steve for some words of inspiration to snap me out of this gripping palpable fear. He assured me that what I was feeling was normal and he too had experienced it. I think my conscience knew I was perfectly healthy and this surgery wasn't necessary for my own health, so I had to reach a degree of acceptance in my decision. I consulted with friends, my sister, said some prayers, and an amazing thing happened! The blanket that I felt had been thrown over my head had been lifted and was wrapped around me, cloaked like comforting arms. Never again did the fear return as it had that day.

Day of Surgery...

I was genuinely calm, having confronted the fears and summoning the courage. When my name was called, right on schedule, I gave my brother a hug. The tears that filled my eyes were not from dread but from having reconciled with my self and been the victor over any misgivings I had had previously. Tears which never spilled over, but remained strong. I was taken to pre-op for surgery preps like the epidural and catheter. It was at this time that I chose the epidural and was told that they were going to remove my right kidney, leaving me with the better of the two, the left. A dozen people waiting for surgery filled the pre-op room. My husband was there with me for as long as they allowed. I remember asking how they were going to keep me on my side for the duration of the surgery and being told "sandbags." I laughed.

When I awoke in recovery, I felt no pain. I do know I asked about my brother and got a reply, although I can't remember what they told me. It is a weird sensation to be in a vague, twilight state and to unable to fully comphrend what was going on around me. I do recall being moved to my room (a private room which I highly recommend) and not being able to move my legs to help them place me in my bed. What followed was not pleasant, --dry heaves while laying flat on one's back never is. I asked my husband about Robert and was told he was doing just fine. I dozed off and on, and managed to eat a few ice chips. Pain was still not real evident.

Day Two...

The next morning I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw my brother standing at the foot of my bed. Words cannot describe the elation at this sight. I couldn't move as the epidural had numbed my left leg and I was feeling a slight tightness on my right side. I knew a miracle had taken place and he was standing right there with one expression, concern for me. They took out my epidural because of the problem with numbness and got me up. A nurse and my husband helped me to a chair. The first step was the hardest. I thought the floor was coming up to meet me. They didn't make me walk anymore that day because my leg still had no feeling. Pain still was not a problem.I only had a few sips of water and Coke this day. My mouth was so dry it was like cotton.

Day Three...

Today they got me up to walk and put me on a PCP (morphine pump.) When they got me to the hall, I asked where my brother's room was. They pointed three blocks straight down the hall. I was impressed that Robert had made that journey and I was barely able to make it to the door of my room. I sat in the chair and only used the morphine pump about five times. It has a lock out allowing it to be used only once every 8 minutes. I was given a tray of food, and although not real hungry but considering I had nothing to eat for three days I knew I had to eat or remain weak, so I ate almost everything. Then the nurse came in, took my PCP and gave me oral pain pills instead. She told me I couldn't take the PCP home and that I would have to get used to pills for the pain. I am one of those who just can't take medicine well. I get ill if I take anything stronger than aspirin.. However, I did as she told me and had the worst reaction to that medication. I thought I was going to pass out. The room was spinning and, needless to say, I did not retain my lunch. I decided the treatment was worse than the pain, so I took nothing from that point. It only hurt when I moved and if I moved real carefully, could tolerate the pain. Thank God, I have a high threshold for pain. My bandages came off and I was pleasantly surprised when my husband told me the incision didn't look that bad and was only about 7" long. Steri strips hold it together and they will fall off on their own. The sutures were the internal and dissolving type, and no staples. They took away the catheter which had given me a bladder infection and more pills: --antibiotics. I was told I had to do six short walks, but twice doing the long walk to my brothers room more than satisfied the nurses requirements.

Day Four...

My brother and I left the hospital together, both reveling in inexpressible thoughts. I have no regrets whatsoever and I know he is grateful to have received this most precious gift from me.

While in the hospital, my brother also gave me a gift. It was a beautiful music box with an angel on the front. When opened it plays " The Wind Beneath My Wings." The words go lke this: "Did you every know that you are my hero?...You're everything that I'd like to be. I can fly higher than an eagle, 'cause you are the wind beneath my wings." I can't play that music box without choking up. No, I am not his hero. I did nothing for him that given the reversed circumstances he would not have done for me. I believe that when all is said and done in this life, it is not the selfish things we do for ourselves, but what we do for others that really matters. I did an ordinary thing that made an extraordinary difference to my brother who is doing fantastic!!

I am just the wind beneath his wings!