I have often thought kidney donation would be a way I could help in my community. However, I never really thought it through, and when the realization hit that donating involved major surgery, I became aware that I happen to have a deep-seated, unexplainable, completely irrational fear of surgery. That fear very nearly caused me not to proceed. Even as we drove to the hospital at 5:00 a.m. on March 5th, I had the thought–“We could just turn around. I could get back in my bed. My kids would wake up with us at home. No one would judge me. Life will continue as normal and this will become a distant memory.”
My conscience wouldn’t let me. I kept picturing a young girl being prepared for her surgery at Children’s Hospital across the street and the devastation to her family, particularly her mother, if the surgery was canceled.
I firmly believe we are all put on this earth to serve, to help each other. If it is in my power to help another mother through the pain of life with a sick child, I should do so. It’s actually an obligation.
I do not subscribe to any religion. I used to. Once I had children, it no longer made sense to me. But I have never lost a sense of spirituality, a feeling that we are all connected. I love a statement I once heard from the Dalai Lama–“My religion is kindness.” That’s what I believe. If we could all put aside all else and just be kind to each other, what a world this would be.
I am a devoted yoga student and we often talk about our “sankalpa” or intention. It is what our truest expression of self looks like, the person we aspire to be. For me, I often repeat, “I am love.” This can take many forms for me–many days I focus on being more patient–particularly with my loved ones. I struggle there! For me, this gift was growth in my intention–to be love, to give a physical part of myself to someone who had a greater need for it.
I have not at all regretted my decision to donate. It was definitely scary heading in to surgery. The scariest moment of my life was when they wheeled my bed away from Steve to head to the operating room. It was awful. For both of us. But then suddenly I was in a busy operating room. The next thing I remember is the nicest nurse ever talking to me in recovery. I wouldn’t be able to pick this guy out of a lineup (it’s possible it wasn’t even a man!), but I do have some memory of his kind voice–his glee at telling me my oxygen was already at 100% and I didn’t need it when I moved to the room where I would stay a couple nights, his thrill at my coloring so early on, and how good my skin looked when they examined me after lying flat for the procedure. I could have stayed listening to his compliments for hours!
The worst part, mainly for my two dear friends who spent extended time in the hospital with me, and for the team caring for me, was my severe nausea afterward, the fact that I couldn’t even tolerate ice chips. I told everyone who would listen before the operation that my body has a history of not tolerating medications well. They all said they were prepared for that, but it seems no one ever is. The anti-nausea medication comes right back up, even when it’s put in an IV. I remember my friend desperately telling the team–“Help her! There’s nothing in her stomach.” And I remember the poor nurse practically wringing her hands telling me she wasn’t allowed to give me anything else because I already had so much medication in my body. They even gave me essential oils to sniff! I really appreciated that, because I of course had brought some of my own–I stupidly hadn’t thought to bring any for nausea, but I brought calming scents to help with my fear.
But even that period wasn’t that bad. Honestly. Friends checking in on me seemed devastated to hear that I kept vomiting with a belly incision. But I was still so medicated, that I didn’t really feel pain from it. And in 4 hours, it was over. They found a medication they could give me that basically made me unconscious so I didn’t feel nauseous–that’s how the nurses described it and it was hilarious. I would try and look at and speak to my friend and Steve when he was able to come in the evening, and my eyes would just close. I was asleep!
I told myself beforehand that some temporary pain or discomfort is completely acceptable if it gives another human a chance at life. And I still absolutely believe that. I was in the hospital for two nights, where everyone fussed over me and told me how wonderful I was. Tough life. I was off all pain medicine in less than a week. For the most part, I already feel fine, ready to get back into my routine. But then I realize, I’m really tired. Right now all I need is rest.
Once I’m fully recovered, my life should not really change. I can still drink (that was one of my first questions!). My health should be normal. In fact, my labs were all normal already the day after surgery! But this girl’s life, her family’s life, should change dramatically–in a good way. And that’s the reason to do this.
Countless people right now are waiting on a list for those of us who are able to temporarily inconvenience ourselves, to overcome our fears. What an opportunity we have to give a life-changing gift to another human!
In saying that, while I believe that we are here on this earth to love and serve others, we all find the ways we can do so that work for us. I can’t donate much money. I volunteer but feel I can’t volunteer much additional time. This was a way that worked for my heart and soul, even though I had fears to overcome. It’s not for everyone. And I never want to elevate myself for my decision and put pressure on those for whom it does not sit right in their hearts.
That said, agreeing to get tested is by no means a commitment to donating. The medical professionals will not accept a person as a donor unless they are firm in their belief that the donor’s life will be compromised in any way. It goes against their purpose.
And even the testing process gives a person the most thorough medical examination and insight into their overall health that they will ever receive in their lifetime–for free. And that’s a big deal, particularly in backward America, where healthcare is a privilege, not a right. And, after any/all of the tests, a person decides donation is not for them, they just walk away. No strings attached. Grateful for the free medical exam and be on your way. So, there really is no harm in stepping forward to see what happens.
Once I had committed to my donation plan, I reconnected with an old college friend that I learned also needs a kidney and I almost switched course. Because, although we were never close and I hadn’t spoken to her in over 20 years, I did actually know her. I saw that she is a mother to two beautiful boys, a therapist who deals with the “bad” kids. I ultimately decided that if I were to switch gears now, first off, there’s no way of knowing whether I’d be an appropriate donor for her and we knew I was for this young girl. And secondly, I felt it put me in the position of deciding whose life had more value to me–I don’t ever want to be in that position. So, I stuck with my original plan.
The way we reconnected was that I called to tell her about my plan after seeing her post on Facebook looking for a donor. I wanted her to hear it from me, a person so far in her past, rather than first learning it on social media when she is in need. The social worker reminded me that when someone donates, it moves everyone up on the list, and let me know that I could also use my story as a way to advocate for others. So, if anyone happens to be inspired at least enough to look into getting initial tests done, please reach out to me and I can connect you with Sarah. I know now firsthand how grateful someone is for this gift of life and not just the recipient, but the entire family.
It was also a coincidence that came to have great meaning, that this all came to pass at a time when I was feeling and seeing tremendous hate and divisiveness around me. In my naivete, I thought this pandemic would show us the value of slowing down, protecting each other, of community, and what’s really important. I know we did see that to some extent. But we also saw fighting and anger, an extreme insistence on individual rights with disregard for communal responsibilities. Once the American election was finally over and the darkness seemed to lighten somewhat, I had this thought that this is the time for grand gestures of kindness, of love for humanity. I realized my kidney donation could be my grand gesture.
Love each other!
I wasn’t alone in this feeling–on a walk my husband brought up to me entirely on his own that we should have a free neighborhood BBQ for the 4th of July this year. He wants to spread the word, provide some food and encourage a feeling of community. It made me realize that this idea of grand gestures of kindness is not unique to me. Many of us feel it’s what the world needs right now. We need to be inspired. We need to see the good in humanity. And it was not lost on me that as it turns out, I was donating to a disabled woman of color–proof that we really are all the same.
However, when I began to tell a few people about my plan, while my husband and children were entirely supportive, I was accused by some family members of being selfish, of being reckless with my life, of shirking my responsibilities to my own family merely to benefit a stranger. I was completely unprepared for accusations like that and they shook me up. As any mother knows, it’s a knife to the heart, to the core of my being, to be accused of not prioritizing my children. They are my everything.
At my pre-op appointment the week before, the nurse explained every detail of what would happen from the moment I walked in the door that Friday morning. Hearing it all brought all those negative words rushing into my head and I had the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a panic attack. I couldn’t stop the tears and all I wanted to do was leave. The social worker even tried to talk me out of it. She said family support is important to my overall well-being and the lack of it is an entirely valid reason not to proceed. She said not to think of it as bailing, but to leave that day, decide what is best for my family and call back if I wanted to “opt-in.” She said to think of this appointment as the time when I finally have all the information I need and from that point to decide if this is something I actually wanted to do and could live with afterward.
I felt that was an excellent way to frame it and my husband, sons, and I had a heartfelt conversation that evening. I called back ready to move forward. I did have the family support that mattered, and I believed this was important. I didn’t want to live with the regret of not moving forward. I didn’t want to let fear and negativity control my responses in life.
I meditate regularly. During this time, when sitting for meditation, I began to envision a brilliant white light pouring into me during the operation. People may simply call this light, or possibly love, God, spirit, the universe, whatever. It poured into every part of me and radiated out health and strength. I would envision the entire medical team working on me guided by this light. I envisioned the operation going smoothly, leaving me strong and in excellent health.
Please believe me when I say that for whatever reason, it worked! I have always been told that my blood pressure is excellent and I also know one of the benefits of meditation is lower blood pressure. This is important to me as high blood pressure runs in my family. I am also aware that people tend to have higher blood pressure when they are in the hospital, due to the stressful nature of the situation. On the morning of the surgery, I was holding Steve’s hand and as part of the preparation, the nurse began to take my blood pressure. I closed my eyes and sat very still, breathing slowly. Steve worried and asked if I was ok. I told him I was trying to steady my blood pressure. When the nurse was finished, she commented on how wonderful my blood pressure was, and she rarely sees it at that level for people about to go into surgery. I was thrilled!
And, as I detailed previously, the whole procedure, based on everything I was told afterward, went just as I envisioned! We have also heard that the young girl’s operation went smoothly and she is doing very well so far! I have sent a letter to my social worker, who has passed it on to her social worker, in the hopes that they will contact me and we can meet someday.
I feel my meditation practice and approach to overall health helped me through this experience. But I also attribute the smoothness of it all to one other factor–community. After the negative reactions I received, I was hesitant to go public with my plan. But I wanted to because I firmly believe in the power of collective positive energy, thoughts, and support. It was a conundrum because I didn’t feel I was strong enough to deal with any additional judgment so close to surgery. My dear friend told me she believed I would receive support and love, so I finally posted the plan on Facebook.
I was and continue to be astounded by the outpouring of love, support, well wishes, and offers of help we have received. This beautiful side of humanity truly fills my heart and it is what has gotten my family and me through this. In fact, my spoiled boys are going to want me to find more organs to donate if we’re not careful!
Since I made my kidney donation public, I have been called many things–brave, heroic, and extraordinary among them. It has been truly humbling. I do not consider myself to be any of those things. I don’t ride roller coasters. I ski slow and don’t like moguls. I still feel guilt at uprooting my happy family to move them across the world in large part because I missed the mountains. I would never describe myself in these terms.
However, I understand now why people have been saying it. It is a big thing to voluntarily undergo major surgery and give up an organ, particularly to a stranger. But, I’d like to pose this thought–what if it wasn’t? One of my sons (and by the way, both of my older sons and my husband now want to be living donors) told me during this process that he believes it should be required of every person who is healthy enough with two kidneys to donate one to someone who needs one.
That sounds so strange–imagine on our 45th birthdays, we all show up for our kidney evaluation. But again, what if it wasn’t strange? I have recently learned that in Japan you are automatically an organ donor on your driver’s license unless you opt out, rather than opting in as we do here in America. That would result in significantly shorter waiting lists for deceased donor organs. And, I mean, we’re dead–what’s the harm to us in donating our organs? And the benefit to others is immense! What if our first instinct was to do whatever we can to help others live well and prosper? What if what I did was the standard, rather than extraordinary? What would our world look like?
I have been watching a lot of TV while I’ve been recovering. In one of the shows, I heard a statement along the lines of–“We learn of so much pain and suffering around us. What if it’s actually NOT crazy to hear about it and take action?” What if my response to human suffering is actually normal? Now, that’s a crazy thought! Imagine…