Two Calls

by Robert McKay

We got the call from my wife's family in the early morning hours. It was one of those that you hope you never get. There had been an accident involving Elena's sister, a bad one, and they were at the Albany Medical center and we had to come quickly. We were in the car and on the way as fast as we could, with no clue where the Albany Medical Center was.

We found it and the news was as bad as we had imagined. She had been out with friends celebrating the completion of her training as a respiratory therapist when a car had swerved off the road, into a parking lot, and hit her. The main injury was to her brain and it was severe. The use of large doses of barbiturates was just being experimented with and the doctors asked for, and received, permission to use them. It was, they said, the only hope. Like all families in that situation, the roller coaster ride had just begun.

After staying at the hospital all day, talking with doctors who spoke in guarded tones of "chances" and "long term damage," the conversation at home that night revolved around how everyone's life would change as we all rallied around. Lisa wasn't going to any home or rehab center, no, everybody was going to do what ever was necessary to bring her home, and keep her there.

The second day the doctors told us there had been another swelling incident and it looked even more grim, but still the talk was optimistic, more forced now, but optimistic anyway.

There was a third swelling incident that night and the doctors were considerably blunter on the third morning. They didn't think there was any brain activity, the swelling had been to severe, but they wouldn't be able to do a confirming test until the swelling went down a little more. But they also wanted us to consider what to do if the test showed brain death. What about turning off the respirator?

And what about donating her organs? There was little hesitation; nobody believed she would have wanted to 'live' on the respirator, that was a given. The organ question caught everyone a little off guard. But who tried to help people more than she did? Who had just finished her training to try and help the sick? If this had to happen, if it had to come to this, isn't this what she would have wanted? The answers were unquestionably yes. Permission was given. Her kidneys went to two young boys.

That has always been a source of comfort to the family, knowing there were two young boys out there who were given a chance at a reasonably normal life. It didn't bring Lisa back, but somehow, knowing that life had continued held its own comfort. They never heard from the recipients' family and that would have helped too, but they understood. Actually, in those days I'm not even sure that communication between the donor and recipient families was even allowed.

- - -

Fast forward to 7 years later. My liver biopsy has come back with a diagnosis of cirrhosis. Well advanced. Time to go to Yale/New Haven for evaluation for entrance into the transplant program. The evaluation itself goes by fairly quickly; I'm more or less flying on automatic pilot. I'm really trying not to react to the situation at all, at least not until I know what is going to happen.

But Lisa keeps coming back to me; she keeps coming back to all of us. Then the word comes that I've been accepted into the program.

The wait is expected to be twelve to fifteen months. It is longer than I theoretically have, but I'm in the program and that is the important thing. I decide not to multiple list. I'll find a way to make it; Y/NH is only thirty minutes from my home and I'm sure I'll do better waiting there than picking up and moving someplace else. Plus, my wife's insurance from work is covering the transplant and she needs to stay. So I try to pass the time the best I can and stay as active as possible. I don't think I'm denying what is wrong and what is going to happen, but I don't want to give in to it either.

But the same thought keeps coming back to me. For me to get my transplant, somebody else is going to have to go through the same thing my wife and her family did. It is not an idea that makes me happy and it keeps coming back often. But it does do one thing. I think I become even more determined to make it work; I know the price somebody, some family out there, will be paying.

At last the call, the one we now hoped for, comes and the transplant is done. It goes remarkably well and I can't believe how good I feel.

The prednisone keeps me awake most of the time; I'm an insomniac by nature, so that really does it. At night when the hospital is quiet I think about that family. I wonder how they're coping. I know my donor was a young man, about the same age as Lisa. Are his parents asking the same questions my in-laws did? Did he have a sister or brother who wonders what life is going to be like without that brother who was also a best friend? Do they know what they have done for a stranger? I write them when I get home (in 12 days), so does my wife; she also wants to explain that maybe we understand a little of what they are going through, and to make sure they know that we understand the value of what they have done for us.

We haven't heard back from them and that we understand. But still I write to them once in a while. Just to let them know that things are going well, that I hope they are doing well. That I'm taking good care of their gift, that I'm living my life to the best and fullest that I can. That I think of them and their son often with the deepest respect and gratitude of the gift they gave me. I hope it gives them the comfort it has given my in-laws.

- - -

So a little piece of unsolicited advice, for a perfect world, for those of you who will, or have, gone through the transplant experience.

To the recipients:

Write that letter. You may not hear back, and it really doesn't matter if you do or not. If you're anything like me it will help you sort out those feelings you have about what it took for you to get your gift.

To the donor families:

When your grief allows it, and you have heard from the recipient, write back and just wish them well with the gift you have given them.

May we all be well, and do our best with what we have.