Today marks one year from January 26, 2011, the day I donated a kidney to my recipient Ann. I’ve thought for a while of what I would say (if anything!) on this day, and the one sentiment that keeps coming to me is thank God for the gift of life. That is not at all an underhanded self-congratulatory statement– not at all! Stranded together in that word “life” are many integral threads, my left kidney being only one of them. The life I’m celebrating today has every bit to do with the journey we have taken leading up to and proceeding the donation surgery itself.
In the late Spring of 2010 as I considered being a possible donor for Ann, I didn’t have much of a clue about what would truly lie ahead. We never do. We sign up for things in good faith, and then plod on ahead a day at a time in faith, taking whatever comes to us, come what may, good or bad.
For me, one of the first revelations in the extensive evaluation process was that I desperately needed to lose some weight. I’ve always been one of those lucky people with a slower metabolism that leaves me struggling with my weight. But in order to be a donor, I needed to drop some significant pounds. There was a minimal amount and an ideal maximum. Figuring that the lighter I was, the easier all of this would be on the surgeon and on me, I went for the ideal maximum and dropped about 65 lbs.
But the weight was only part of the picture. Ann’s husband Dave kept telling me, “Well, if for nothing else you’ll be getting yourself one heck of a physical.” He was right. Multiple blood tests, a chest x-ray, a CT scan, an EKG, and a full comprehensive physical later, I had gotten more in touch with the make-up and health of my body than I ever had before.
So, the first strand of God’s gift of life was an even greater appreciation for my health and the imperative to get healthier. This is a gift that keeps on giving, too. Now living with only one kidney, I have every bit of motivation needed to keep my weight and all those other critical levels in check!
Then came the day of surgery itself and the days that followed. Looking back, those were some exciting, beautiful times. Yes, there was a lot pain involved, especially in the first couple of days. And there were those minor details of general anesthesia and major surgery for Ann and me. Thank goodness for pain medication that both alleviated much the pain and a bunch of my memories, too.
But two distinct memories stand out from surgery day and the day following: Waking up I first remember asking about Ann. How was she? Did she do alright? The first thing I remember being told was that she was okay and that her new kidney (my old one!) was already at work producing urine. Wow… Then on the next day after my catheter was removed, they got me up to do some walking and my first walk was down to Ann’s room. Having had my gut cut open and contents removed just the day before, that was a slow, ginger walk. But there was Ann in her room, reporting that already she was beginning to feel better. Her new kidney was hard at work removing the toxins from her body that had debilitated her for years now, and even after her own major surgery, she could feel the difference. Believe me, that was a powerfully humbling, even flattening thing to behold.
The second strand of life was Ann’s new life. To date, this is the most difficult part of the experience to fathom and even talk about. Most all off us have an inner compulsion to help other people. Most of us would describe ourselves somewhere in the tension of being people who give of themselves while also consciously aware that we could always do better. I donated a kidney to Ann, a member of my church, because it was an opportunity I had to help. Until then, I had never even considered something like this. I didn’t do it to “make a huge sacrifice” or to be a hero. Ann needed a kidney and like many recipients, she was having a hard time finding one. I was healthy and compatible enough with Ann to participate. That’s it. Some gifts we give make a small, meaningful difference. Others make a drastic, meaningful difference. Sometimes we’re tasked to walk an old woman across the street. Sometimes, we’re tasked to save a life. Either way, it’s all about being available to meet the need, however great or small. Along those lines, I hate to think that I donated a kidney, but failed to take ten minutes to listen to someone who just really needed to talk. Both are equally important tasks. Both give life.
Then, the day after coming home from this hospital, I had to go straight back in. As my bowels woke up from the sleep of general anesthesia, I developed a serious case of GI bleeding. From all the blood loss, I passed out in the hospital, fell and hit my head pretty hard, leaving me with a concussion. Two units of blood, a CAT scan, an endoscopy and colonoscopy, and “Meckel” scan later, I came home again. I don’t remember how many nights I was in the hospital. This time, I was recovering from major blood loss and a concussion in addition to surgery.
Ann had her share of complications, too. Her surgery site got infected and took a long time to properly heal. At one point she experienced some very mild rejection, both instances having put her back into the hospital, too.
What can I say?? We were challenging patients!
For me, the extended recovery and ensuing symptoms left me weaker and more physically and psychologically vulnerable than I realized. Getting back into the swing of things took much, much longer than I had anticipated. And for all their excellent care, the doctors’ predictions about healing times and returning to work were far too rosy. But I wasn’t a textbook case, as my donation coordinator reminded me.
I was suffering memory loss and emotional imbalances from the concussion. Frustration with myself led to a lot of outward and inner anger. I still feel both incredibly grateful but a tinge guilty for all Blairlee, my kids, and those close to me had to endure. This person they had always known just wasn’t himself and couldn’t come to grips with that. Their patience, forgiveness, and unconditional love was yet another gracious gift in this experience.
Finally, by late Spring of last year, all this frustration and anger amassed into a serious depression. Combine that with all the physiological changes my body endured during the year along with my own inherited propensity for depression, and I found myself in a new season of illness and healing I never would have predicted. Just when I thought that physically I was getting in better shape, my mind and spirit needed healing.
Once again I found myself at the mercy and in the care of my family, close friends, and the medical community. And once again, I found myself humbled by everyone’s graciousness and unconditional love. And what did I do to deserve all this??
The third stand of life was the care, support, and gracious love of those closest to me. All told, I have not been an easy person to live with and work with this year. (Some might argue that’s always the case. It was just particularly difficult in 2011.) As a husband, a father, a pastor, and a friend, I have been used to taking care of other people. I was the support and the caregiver. I’m used to living out my life to serve and give to others.
But this time, I couldn’t do much of that. In fact, others have had to do for me what I couldn’t do myself. I know that there have been folks who have felt let down or even angry that I fell down on the job. They told me so. Yet in the midst of all that, I learned how dispensable we all are. Our lives are a gift to others, yes, but we are not indispensable fountains of salvation. The world can carry on without us or even in spite of us.
As it does, I learned to allow others to care for me, to forgive me, and to love me even when I wasn’t very lovable. No one does that better than my wife Blairlee. Here I was, giving away one of my organs, only to find myself a needy recipient. That has truly been the most profoundly beautiful, humbling thread of this cord of life I’ve been talking about here.
So, here’s to a journey that began close to to two years ago and continues on today. We are all donors and recipients of life. It’s just a question of graciously making ourselves available to give what we have to those who need it and to gladly, graciously receive the gifts others grant us. All this is God’s gift of life, seen most perfectly in Jesus, incarnated in us whenever we lovingly give and whenever we humbly receive.