Point of View

The rewards of organ donations

May 12, 2012 

The best Mother’s Day gift I ever received was actually one I gave to my son: a kidney. I didn’t need it and he did.

Six years ago, after months of donor testing, this self-confessed wimp (I faint when I have blood drawn) got the green light to be his donor.

How did I do it? Mother’s Day seems like an apt occasion to explain that it was much easier than I’d feared – surely easier than childbirth – that just about anyone can do it, and that it was the most ennobling thing I’ve ever done.

Paul had just graduated from college when his kidneys began failing. For nearly two years, he had dialysis three days a week, dominating his life and sapping his spirit. He needed a transplant, and I was our family’s only donor match. Though he was on the transplant list, waiting for a deceased donor could take several years.

I would do it.

When my testing began at UNC Hospitals, I was assigned a nurse coordinator who helped navigate the system and was always a phone call away whenever I had concerns. And I had plenty – the blood draws, for one (I did them lying down; lots of tubes at once; lidocaine for me to numb my arm).

I was also assigned a social worker, a psychologist, a transplant nephrologist and transplant surgeon. They assured me I could change my mind at any point, and Paul would just be told I had been eliminated.

The reality began to sink in as the tests continued: X-rays, a stress cardiogram, CT angiography, lung function test and more. It’s one thing to talk theoretically about possibly risking your life for your child, but the real thing was less lofty and more messy.

Then a funny thing happened: with each test, I learned I was a pretty healthy specimen – much younger than my 58 years, they said. That boosted my confidence. Everything I did had a purpose now. When I ran up stairs, I’d tell myself I was running for my kid’s life.

After every test I’d call the nurse and hold my breath till I heard if I’d passed. I knew I could still be disqualified. If so, would I secretly be relieved (hey, I’d tried)? To my surprise, I realized that no, I’d be crushed. As a mother, I wanted to be the one to save Paul from his nightmare. And by then I was determined to prove to myself that I could meet a physical challenge.

So when the psychologist asked if I was sure I wanted to do this, I laughed. I’d had ample time to go through all the stages: adrenaline rush; reality check (college-bound daughter, elderly father, overworked husband); the wrestling with myself; and now the certainty that I wanted to do it. “Trust me,” I said. “You can skip to another question.”

When the surgery was scheduled, I was elated – and panicky. If my heart pounded, I worried about a heart condition; when I had trouble taking deep breaths, I fretted about post-surgery pneumonia.

I called my coordinator, who consulted the doctors. She said they had reassured her my heart and lung capacity were both fine. Might I like to talk to the psychologist?

The psychologist asked gently if I’d like to reschedule the surgery. They think I’m having second thoughts! Nothing could’ve been farther from my mind. “You don’t understand,” I said. “I’d be the same if I were having my tonsils out.”

Before the surgery, whenever I’d had a migraine or cramps, I’d terrify myself by saying “it’s going to be even worse than this.” It wasn’t.

After the surgery, my family said I didn’t act like someone who’d just lost a kidney. I didn’t feel like one. Not long ago, the donor’s ribs had to be removed during the operation. With a laparoscopy, I had just two tiny slits and a bikini incision. I was so relieved at how well it had gone that I was able to almost shrug off the pain.

The night after the surgery I enjoyed the brief but tranquil sleep of someone who’s crossed the finish line after anxiously anticipating the race for two years. I went home from the hospital with a mild painkiller and substantial pride. I told a friend I wished I could do it all again. Knowing I had done something noble and challenging was an incredible high.

And the nurse whispered to me, “now you’ve given him life twice.” Not a bad gift for any mother. And today, both kidneys are doing well.

This Mother’s Day, whether you’re a mother or honoring your own mother, consider making that gift. It needn’t be a live donation like mine – sign up as an organ donor on Facebook or when you renew your driver’s license. It will be worth more than any bouquet of flowers.

Carol Offen of Chapel Hill is an editor/writer at RTI International in Research Triangle Park.

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