Live Organ Donation: The Real March Madness

When last we left our heroes, Andy and Jeffrey were preparing to enter the hospital to remove one of Andy’s two healthy kidneys and place it in Jeffrey’s body.  When it is put like that, the blunt removal of one’s organ to insert in another, it sounds like an amazing feat.  And it is.  But it is also a well honed procedure and process.  Two weeks later, both men are doing well.

Andy and Jeffrey were admitted for the transplant on Friday morning, March 16, bright and early.  Andy was discharged on Saturday and Jeffrey on Sunday.  Think about that.  Amazing.  A little zip, a little zap, some pain meds and BAM, you are home on your sofa either having saved a life, or having received a new lease on life.  Amazing.

Checking in with Andy, our donor hero, discharged just a day after the transplant surgery, he says it took just over a week, eight days, to feel more himself.  He was prescribed narcotic strength pain meds through Sunday — 48 hours post surgery — and then some over-the-counter pain meds did the trick.  In that week there were lots of naps, lots of itching from healing wounds, and a sense of , “having eaten ten thousand pounds of Taco Bell every day.”  Andy describes pretty intense nausea and indigestion.  But again, eight days later, Andy had a busy day, out of the house all day and returning to his schedule.

For Jeffrey, our recipient hero, recovery has been a little more complicated. Two weeks later, Jeffrey is feeling fine and resting at home.  He was originally discharged 48 hours post surgery and describes the initial recovery as more painful than he thought it would be.  There has been a blip, as there often are with major surgeries, and Jeffrey was rehospitalized last weekend for intense pain and signs of rejection.

When I first heard the news, in a text from Andy, my stomach dropped. Rejection is the worst possible word a transplant patient could hear.  It’s like relapse for a cancer patient.  Jeffrey himself texted me a couple days later, as he was being discharged.  Both men, in their inimitable low key way downplayed the situation.  I got these texts and assumed the worst.  Our heroes knew better.

Through routine, scheduled blood tests, Jeffrey’s transplant team detected the first signs of rejection with changing blood levels.  They were able to admit Jeffrey and reverse those troubling signs.  This, apparently, is not uncommon.  Jeffrey, ten days out from the surgery reported to friends and family on Facebook, “Good morning Facebook family. I am truly on the mend. I’ve had back spasms, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, serious constipation, fatigue, and constant pain in my side for a little over a week, plus the need to urinate every 45-60 minutes since Friday and you know what? I’d take ALL of this over kidney dialisys 8 days out of 7.”

In talking with Andy and Jeffrey about their experiences, both pre- and post-surgery, I was again struck by just how easy they seemed to be about a major, life-altering surgery.  The way they communicate about it is similar — few words, low-key approach, sensible, matter-of-fact language, and non-emotive.  They have that in common.  Another thing they have in common is the bond of sports.

Me?  I don’t know from sports.  They’re lost on me, but my interest was piqued.  Is this the thing that brought these two men together?  I mean, there’s over a decade that separates them, their kids even more than that. There’s the finance thing, too, but not having worked together for five years, it’s easy to lose touch.  But these men didn’t.

When they first met, they found a common denominator in their love of sports.  Andy describes that they had similar communication styles and work ethic.  They talked baseball.  They soon learned that they both had side jobs with sports, too.  Andy was a freelancer for ESPN, covering high school sports, and Jeffrey is a referee for IHSA football games.

As they talked more about sports and their connection, I started to get it.  It’s like shoes for women.  I hate to be so reductive, and you know I am not down with gender stereotypes, but I can’t tell you how often I have opened up a conversation with a female stranger or acquaintance with a shoe comment or compliment.  There is a shorthand with shoes and sports that instantly bonds those who get it.  You know exactly what I mean, don’t you?

Andy describes it as being, “easier to engage someone who likes sports.” Their mutual appreciation transcends boundaries and cliques, which I was interested to learn happen just as frequently in male social culture.  When Andy revealed to Jeffrey that he was a soccer fan, that told Jeffrey something about Andy.  And when Jeffrey states his preference for the Cubs over the Sox, that tells Andy something about Jeffrey.  It’s like me preferring closed toe kitten heels over peep toe platforms!  Seemingly, what is the bonding factor is not so much Cubs over Sox or soccer over football, but the fact that there is the appreciation for the sports in the first place.

When I asked Andy if he and Jeffrey had lacked the sports connection, would there still have been a kidney transplant, he didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes.”  When I asked Jeffrey the same question, he was a bit more circumspect, “I would like to think my personal magnetism was what did it, but in all truth, sports was the basis of a lot of our connection.”

Also interesting was the role sports had played for both men growing up and as adults.  Not only are sports a social outlet and extra stream of income, but something that helps both men define themselves and cope with the struggles of everyday life.  Andy found solace in watching professional baseball after 9/11.  The orderliness and predictability of the play brought comfort.  There’s also that sense of the universal appeal of simple things — baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.  It’s why someone like me who is not interested in sports can be captivated by Rocky or Bull Durham or The Fighter.  There is a humanity in sports that is accessible to all.

For Jeffrey, his football officiating played a role in his kidney disease and how he coped with it.  Diagnosed with kidney failure in July 2010, he had to sit out the entire football season, which started just a few weeks later.  Early on, he went to a game and saw his crew doing their thing.  It was too painful to sit on the stands, so he left.  He describes the “severe withdrawals” he felt on Friday nights.

Things had stabilized by the 2011 season, so Jeffrey went back and to his humble delight, reclaimed his white hat.  He was back on the field doing something he loved.  He recounted his own high school coach, “He taught me to be a man before I knew what a man was.”  Now that’s deep.  When he said that, I kind of instantly understood how and why Andy and Jeffrey were drawn to one another.  There is immense humanity in that statement.

Jeffrey went on to describe officiating high school football and working with kids and coaches.  He described how the game is not about an individual player, but the team as a whole and that the best coaches get that and are able to teach that.  “The game is not about kids.  The game is about the team and doing the right thing the right way,” Jeffrey said.

And then, in a flash, it all makes sense to me.  It makes sense to me that despite not socializing, or maintaining close contact through the years, or having loads in common, Andy would donate a kidney to Jeffrey.  For these men, with their similar styles and approach to life, it’s about the big picture. It’s about doing the right thing.  It’s about making decisions that are right for the whole rather than the one.  It’s about supporting a teammate.

Kidney Friends

Good Lord, they may have made me a sports fan.

 

Live Organ Donation: A Tale of Two Kidneys

This will be the first of several posts covering the live kidney donation of Andy to Jeffrey.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. Live organ donation is a bit like that, too.  Come to think of it, life is a bit like that.  Funny how dichotomies work that way.

On Friday morning, my friend and fellow blogger Andy will be donating one of his healthy, functioning kidneys to his former colleague, Jeffrey, who has not been quite as lucky in the healthy, functioning kidney department.  Both are husbands, both are fathers, both are sports fans, both work in finance. And that’s pretty much it — the ties that bind them together aren’t especially strong.  Andy and Jeffrey are not what you’d call, “tight.”  Nor are they in the midst of a torrid bromance.  The extent of their connection is a phone call every eighteen months or so, catching up on professional matters.

So how do you get from there to here?  How do you get from infrequent phone contact to settling down to the business of donating a vital organ?

Well, it starts with a need.  Jeffrey needs a kidney.  In early 2010, through routine medical tests, docs started to notice some changes in Jeffrey’s kidneys, though nothing alarming.  After several months of tests, that alarm did sound in July 2010.  Jeffrey got a message to stop by the doctor’s office for a blood test on the way home from work.  Later that evening, the doc phoned Jeffrey at home and told him to high tail it to the hospital first thing the next morning.  Do not pass ‘GO,’ do not collect $200.  Jeffrey’s kidneys had entered acute failure.

Kidney failure is not pretty.  It is, in fact, quite ugly.  Their function is two-fold:  to clean our blood and remove excess fluids and waste through our urine.  They absorb the good and get rid of the bad.  Simple as that. But there is nothing simple when they fail.  Managing kidney failure as a chronic condition is tedious, arduous work.  It involves dialysis, the medical-mechanical miracle of removing our blood, cleaning it, then returning it back to the body.  Additionally, dialysis also removes the excess fluids and waste that many kidney patients do not void naturally.  Well, that’s the blogger’s version of dialysis, at least.

When Jeffrey went into acute renal failure, his life changed in an instant. Snap.  Just like that.  In order to function, he was now dependent on three times weekly, four hour dialysis sessions.  He described it to me as, “both a treatment and a disruption.”  Because of my Cancer Mom street cred, I totally got it.  It is a complicated thing to live amidst illness.  There is a constant need to balance hope and fear and fatigue and worry and symptoms and optimism and realism.  It’s a tough gig.

From everything I’ve heard from and about Jeffrey, he walked that medical tight rope well.  He described entering the crowded waiting room at the dialysis center, every chair filled with people waiting on kidneys, dependent on machines to keep them at certain degrees of functional.  Jeffrey being one of the more functional, “I thought, ‘Why am I here?'”

Think about it.  Four hours of dialysis, three days a week.  Four hours of being hooked to a machine that is the bane of your existence, but the only thing keeping you alive.  Then there is the travel time back and forth to said machine.  The settling in and getting accessed — someone’s got to manage those tubes that carry the blood.  And we haven’t even discussed the 8-12 hours of debilitating side effects that follow every session.  Conservatively, that’s 14 hours, three days a week.  Damn.

Jeffrey 

Jeffrey talks about the burden of managing chronic illness when you don’t look ill.  It’s hard to appear healthy and able, but not feel it.  He has been living with dialysis for almost two years now.  Early into his kidney failure and new to the dialysis grind, he got some advice that has served him well: “Don’t hate it; embrace it.”  Jeffrey works to follow that sage little nugget daily.  “I handle it the way my parents would have wanted me to,” he told me. He also talks about the simple necessity of doing what you need to do, “Be a man, face it, and move forward.  Don’t let it overcome you.”  And then he quietly brings up living with your mortality, “You see it and you know it’s there.”

Like I said, it’s a tough gig.

Enter Andy and his healthy, functioning kidney.  Said kidney was kind of burning a hole in his pocket. You see, Andy had been approved and scheduled to be a live donor to another individual in January.  Days before that operation, fate intervened and the intended recipient was gifted not only a kidney, but several other necessary organs after the untimely death of a stranger.  Organ donation, yo.  It is serious business.

In the midst of prepping for his first recipient, Andy learned about his former colleague’s need for a kidney.  When his first recipient received another kidney and all looked well with her recovery, Andy contacted Jeffrey and made the offer of a lifetime. Literally.  For Andy, it was simple math — he had two and Jeffrey needed one.

I’ve spoken with Jeffrey and Andy and what struck me most about how they’ll be spending their Friday morning in dueling ORs, is how stereotypically male they’ve both been in brokering this exchange.  Andy does not wish to be lauded for his offer of a kidney, to the contrary, he is the reluctant hero of this tale, “I’m not a pay-it-forward kind of guy, not altruistic, or with a grand philosophy.”

Andy 

It’s hard to believe that, but having spoken to him a few times about it now, I do.  “I’m not bringing fears and emotions into this,” says Andy, “I feel like people should step up and do what’s important.”  So that is precisely what Andy is doing.  No bells, no whistles, no ticker tape parade.  Andy is simply doing a good thing.  And doesn’t want the fanfare that most would gladly heap upon him.

On Friday morning, two men will travel to Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Kovler Organ Transplantation Center and their lives and organs will intersect. Ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things, folks.  Andy will prove that with the surgery.  Jeffrey has spent the better part of two years living that. We never really know what we are capable of until we are faced with it, or until we challenge ourselves.  And I remember again Dickens’ words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” Through bad we can know good.  Through challenging circumstanes, good can come.  I wish both these gentlemen well.

If you are interested in learning more about live kidney donation, it starts with a questionnaire that you will find here.  Read about the life saving work of the Kovlar Organ Transplantation Center here.  And Andy will fill you in on some pretty impressive kidney recipients here.