This is my annual post.
It was three years ago. Actually four from diagnosis through listing through transplant, but really so many more when my father slipped into a yet unnamed heart failure.
I haven’t talked about it all that much. I’ve mentioned it, and talked around it, asked you to sign up to be an organ donor. But I’ve never talked about it. Not in any meaningful way. I think it’s time.
In the end, it’s a series of details strung together: of how my sister just happened to be driving right by my apartment at the time, so we could head up to the hospital together. The surreal feeling of leaving my friend a message telling her I can’t make it to dinner, my father got a heart. Having someone there, unexpectedly, keeping vigil with me. And, when it was all over, how I sobbed in the waiting room, unable to catch my breath after a year of holding it.
When you hear about transplants, there are all sorts of facts and figures: the wait time depending on blood type, how long an organ is viable outside the donor’s body. For a heart, it’s four to six hours. You think it will be a manic process, going in, and, yet as with everything before, there’s an element of hurry up and wait. The heart is the last organ harvested—yes, harvested. An odd word choice, but at this point in the process, my vocabulary had expanded in so many unexpected directions I hardly took notice.
The heart remains, pumping, keeping the rest of the viable organs alive until they can be harvested for their intended recipients. We heard that night that a woman in another room, in some other hall, would be receiving the lungs. I thought then about how so many lives would be saved by the unexpected loss of one.
And, so we waited, in the hospital waiting rooms that, by now, had grown as familiar to me as a relative’s apartment. And, the staff let us sleep on the couches, though we could not. And, then, there was a different kind of waiting, while the surgery went on.
The next day, when my father was placed in the step-down unit, we were able to go in once we had suited up, covering almost every surface of our skin to keep out any toxins that were on it. It was an odd family portrait—my father hooked up to IVs and my mother, sister, and I wearing shower caps, gloves and masks, but we were intact and it felt like the hardest part just might be behind us.
I would have to go back to work, and my day-to-day life soon, but not then. That day, close friends of my parents brought us bags of food to eat in the waiting room. And, my best friend, an ophthalmologist, came by to keep us company and give my mother a much needed eye exam—the stress of everything had caused some blood vessels in her eye to burst. As for me, I stared at my book, turning the same phrases over and over in my head, searching for meaning, not in a metaphorical sense. Quite literally, I couldn’t focus on anything. This went on for days.
I’ve heard that a crisis brings out the best in people. I’m not sure I agree. Rather, I think that you become more of how you already are. There’s a challenge, as it were, and you rise to it.
There’s no denying it, from start to finish, I changed. In the immediate aftermath, it wasn’t necessarily in the best of ways—after so much time waiting by the phone and thinking that time was so limited, I forgot what it was like to be spontaneous, to not have to account for every hour. I was skittish, just plain tired all of the time, and at times angry at everything. I’d like to think that those days are past me. I’d like to think, too, that they’ve made me more empathetic towards others.
I’ve been humbled by the past few years. Yes, that’s a good phrase. I’ve been humbled. I’ve realized that I can’t do things alone, and there’s no shame in asking for help—or asking something of someone.
And, so, I’m asking.
Hopefully not for me, not for my family, but maybe for one of yours. Sign up to be an organ donor.