March 25, 2003: We had to be at the hospital by 6 a.m., which meant getting to bed early the night before. Didn't happen. There was too much angst in the house. Mom was scared; I was freaking out a bit, but I believed it was all going to be OK.
When we arrived at 6 a.m. on the dot, I went to one room and Mom to another. I filled out some paperwork, put on a hospital gown and made myself comfortable on a bed with wheels. We had a lull in the action, so I went to see how Mom was doing. A nurse was giving her a dose of all the pills that would soon become part of her daily regimen. We made small talk and calmed each other's nerves. My brother was also going back and forth between rooms, showing no sign of anxiety on his part.
Back in my section, I got back on the bed and IVs were lodged in my arm. One was for saline, the other for the happy juice. Indeed. I believe on the way to the OR, I told a few Henny Youngman jokes and then waxed poetic about my NCAA bracket. I woke up five hours later to incredible pain in my side and a woman showing me how to use a morphine drip.
But my kidney was safely transplanted into my mom. And it was working!
"Two years and counting!" she wrote on an anniversary card in 2005. "Thanks again and again for my new life!! I love you lots, Mom."
We celebrated every March 25 with champagne and cheesecake, and even though I lost my mom last year, I still marked the occasion and always will. I've recently re-read all the cards and emails we exchanged about the transplant and the year of dialysis.
"Thanks for sharing your kidney. I'm really in the pink these days!" Mom wrote on a card. "Happy Anniversary! Love always, Mom. P.S. We have matching kidneys and matching sweaters."
Be a donor. It's an incredible act of generosity and courage. But there's also anxiety and worry. When it goes well, you are rewarded with the joy of seeing your recipient with newfound energy and a love of life. They got a second chance because of you. (On my first day back at the office in 2003, I was recounting the experience to my good friend Jonathan Alter. He pulled out his license and checked the donor box right in front of me.)
It took Mom almost a year before she decided to go through with the transplant, mostly out of concern for me. Her kidneys had failed in February 2002, and she immediately started the three-times-a-week hemodialysis. But that was just too hard on her body. So we went with the next option, peritoneal dialysis, a process of exchanging the fluid in her peritoneal cavity (gut) that she could do at home four times a day.
Next came a machine that would work overnight, so Mom's days were free. That new freedom was nice, until those nights when the machine didn't work. Once the bag of fluid broke open and spilled on the floor.
In the meantime, my brother and I had been tested for compatibility to donate and I matched. But Mom was still holding out. By Christmas 2002, she had had enough. We agreed to go through with it.
There we were on March 25. The surgeon made a four-inch cut on my left side, maneuvered his mechanical set of arms inside and clipped my kidney. It was then transplanted in Mom and put to work. After the surgery, I asked to be wheeled by Mom's bed in recovery. She was still pretty out of it. But the kidney was working. The nurses proudly held up the catheter bag, full of urine. It's funny the things that you cheer about in hospitals, isn't it?
My health was not affected. What took some getting used to was just the oddity of all of it, kind of sci-fi. I have an organ, they took it out of me and put it in my mother. Cue "The Twilight Zone" music.
I was home in three days. Mom came home a few days later. Thus began her new way of life, starting with counting meds and dealing with side effects. Those anti-rejection drugs are potent and took some getting used to. But Mom was a fighter and she took it on, just like she did with dialysis. It took about six months but her body finally adjusted.
We celebrated that fall with a trip to Italy, and then we went again in 2004. Those are two of the best times of my life. Mom walked up a steep street in Montepulciano and enjoyed the gardens of Ravello. We got a private tour of the U.S. embassy in Rome. We enjoyed a dinner in an agriturismo with 20 of my closest friends outside Bologna. She had the energy and we took advantage!
I think back now at what that time was like. Making the decision was easy. But as the day neared, all I thought about was Mom, and I got a little anxious. It had to work. I knew I'd be fine. My mom needed help and, luckily, I was a match. I know others aren't always so lucky. And so I applaud organ donation awareness. I follow this group: http://donatelife.net/.
"A note to thank you again for your generous gift of life on March 25, 2003," Mom wrote to me. "It was a good investment! Love you, Mom."
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