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    Posted September 17, 2015 by
    howardcole
    Location
    Los Angeles, California
    Assignment
    Assignment
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    First Person: Your essays

    A 25-year Transplant Survivor Shares His Story, and His Gratitude for the Gift of Life

     

    There are two times where you are to be congratulated entering a hospital. One is when you're having a baby; the other is when you're arriving for an organ transplant operation.

     

    For me that day was September 22, 1990, a beautiful Saturday in Southern California. I’d been wearing a beeper (remember beepers?) for weeks since the powers-that-be told me to be ready, and was about to take my first sip of coffee at breakfast with my friend, Richard, when off it went. “Holy [expletive], an 825 prefix, that’s UCLA!”

     

    Hold the phone. No coffee, no nothing. Let’s go!

     

    I suppose I was nervous, but never in my life was I more confident of success. I’d been prepared well, and had a support system in place, which included counseling, hypnotherapy and a list of 30 loved ones who Richard was to call on that day, whenever it might occur.

     

    I saw it as an adventure, or an athletic competition. The year in dialysis felt like sitting on the sidelines, waiting for my chance. And that morning, as if fired up by my coaches, I thought, “just give me the damn ball and watch me run.” Accepted a hearty high-five and a knowing smile from an orderly in the hospital elevator.

     

                                                             # # #

     

    My father died young – at 37 – and having had my first kidney biopsy at five just a few months prior, I’d felt all along that I was destined to follow in his footsteps. And as it turned out, if nature had its way or I’d been stranded on uncharted desert isle, I’d have been toast by 30 (unless, of course, the isle was Gilligan's and the professor had been able to fashion a dialysis machine out of seaweed and sugar cane).

     

    Twice a week without fail, every Monday and Friday in a dialysis center, two of the biggest needles on the planet plunged into my forearm “access,” four hours at a pop. And this was pre-Internet, remember. So no news, no sports - or well, porn:) - to pass the time. Just a tiny black and white TV with the standard L.A. VHF channels; 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13.

     

    Every so often I’d notice an empty chair, which meant one of two things: either a patient had graduated to a transplant, or checked out for good.

     

                                                            # # #

     

    There are approximately 123,000 people waiting for life-saving organs in this country. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the gap between patients in need and available donors is widening, and “there are more than enough people waiting for an organ to fill a large football stadium twice over.” About 22 per day die waiting for their chance to take the field.

     

    I’m intentionally rounding off because the numbers change daily, sometimes several times in a day, and always in the wrong direction.

     

    But this isn’t a sob story. It’s not about kidney failure; it’s about kidney success, and I am “living, smiling proof” that the system works. It can work better, but it works.

     

    And I am grateful. I’m just so grateful to the family of the young man whose loss of life at 19 meant a second chance for me and several others who would be receiving his organs that September day a quarter of a century ago.

     

    Healthy as can be – which made for “good organs” – he’d been killed in a motorcycle accident the night before. Had he not been wearing his helmet, I wondered? What must it have been like for his parents as the transplant coordinators approached, taking their turns one by one; asking for his heart, his liver; his kidneys, lungs and intestines. Maybe his skin, and corneas.

     

                                                             # # #

     

    October 14, 1989. I’m a baseball man. My license plate reads “GO DGRS.” My transplant the following September 22 was to be Tommy Lasorda’s 63rd birthday. Coincidence? I think not.

     

    But on this day I could not get out of bed by 5:00 p.m. to watch Game 1 of the World Series. That I didn’t see a pitch was as incomprehensible to me as the notion that my kidneys were shot and my pneumonia-induced coughing could be heard by my roommate across a doors-closed 1200 square foot apartment, non-stop all night long.

     

    The Loma Prieta earthquake struck the next day; I entered Santa Monica Hospital for antibiotics and to begin dialysis the morning after. Convinced my life was over I’d turn on the TV to see nothing but horror, for a week, on every one of those seven basic channels.

     

    But then a ray of hope. They pulled a man out of the wreckage of Interstate 880. He was in kidney failure, like me; but he was alive. Like me.

     

                                                             # # #

     

    Dialysis was depressing. I’d walk in for a session at a strapping 160 pounds and exit at 150; 10 pounds of waste removed from my body artificially because I could not do it myself. I had to limit my intake of fluid. Essentially, nothing but water for a year. A social worker warned about the perils of high potassium.

     

    “What can happen if my potassium gets too high,” I asked.

     

    “Well, your heart will stop.”

     

    “And you’d recommend against that?” A joke borrowed from “Get Smart” which I thought was both funny and appropriate given the circumstances. But, crickets.

     

                                                             # # #

     

    Since I’d treated myself to McDonald’s (#LargeFries) after a particularly difficult dialysis session the night before, my potassium had spiked, making one final plunge of those scary needles necessary. Worth it.

     

    All smiles in the operating room. A deadpanned “count down from a million” cracked me up.

     

                                                             # # #

     

    There is one sure sign of kidney transplant success: Pee. You pee and you’re golden. And it was “Pee Glorious Pee!” for me. “Urine the Money!” from the start, saved for posterity with the help of catheter the size a small garden hose.

     

    Interesting that one particularly attractive ICU nurse returned repeatedly, lifting the blanket to check out, well, something or other.

     

                                                             # # #

     

    Thanks to my sister Analee for the suggestion (and to Kellogg’s for the unofficial naming rights) I call my kidney “Special K.” The entire experience has been special, actually. And I am grateful.

     

    Twenty-five years is a long time for a cadaver kidney, and I am aware of my responsibility to the donor family to keep the organ thriving. And there is no doubt in my mind that I will. For the duration. None whatsoever.

     

    The call to action is not “send money!” or “can we have your organs aasp?” which to some may sound like “gimme, gimme, gimme.” Use your body parts well. Take them to ballgames in good health; seatbelts fastened, please. What I hope you’ll do is talk to your family about your wishes.

     

    As difficult as the topic is to get into, please share your thoughts. A donor card is great, but someone still has to give the go-ahead, and it’s easier if they have your blessing in advance, just in case.

     

    I’m lucky that one generous family had such a conversation some 25 years ago. And I am grateful. I’m just so grateful.

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