What does it feel like to donate a kidney to someone you love?
For me the entire experience boils down to one word: magic.
It’s taken a long time to write about this experience. 12 years have passed, to be exact. The attention I inevitably receive when telling people about it always felt wrong. People would throw around words like “brave”, “heroic”, and other words that we reserve for protagonists in novels and movies, or the people in the news who take a back seat to the latest “post-truth” headlines. But me? I never felt brave or heroic. I just felt that I was serving my responsibility as a human that pretty much everyone else would do if put in that position. If that is a brave act then maybe that explains why our society is in trouble. I exercised the heart muscle through a simple act of will to say yes. Once I did that, the real heroes took over. The medical system is amazing and those people are the ones deserving all the accolade. They dedicated their lives to helping so many others.
Under The Knife
Interestingly enough, I don’t remember feeling too anxious before the surgery. I certainly have had heavier bouts with crippling anxiety for much more trivial matters over the years. Maybe that is a testament to our fight-or-flight limbic system. I fought the anxiety with a parasympathetic nervous response, and for the most part I felt pretty calm.
I think I was relaxed because I saw the statistics. The success rate for a kidney transplant operation is remarkably high. It was a simple pro-and-con equation: on one hand, I could save my cousin’s life. On the other hand, she dies.
The first thing I remember after the surgery was incredible pain. The second thing I remember was singing. My mom had just started playing guitar and wrote a song about the experience, causing me to feel embarrassed in a way that only a mother can. The nurse said something like “they should write a song about you” as I was wheeled out of the OR. I told her, “too late” and spouted a couple lines that my mom sang to me earlier before losing consciousness again.
I spent five days in the hospital. If I were to add up all of my memories during that period, the collective time might be an hour or two. Most of that time I was high as a kite on morphine. People would come and go, and my vague memories recall just wanting to be left alone.
The Month After The Kidney Transplant
The next month was full of ups and downs, but mostly it was full of highs. That was thanks to the 4mg Dilaudid prescription. Also known as Hydromorphone, this narcotic was the saving grace for the severe pain associated with the trauma of waking up with a kidney missing. The pain was like a black hole in my abdominal cavity that consumed my consciousness…until I took the magic pill. Usually I would keep on a steady schedule so as not to let the pain creep in. There were other effects too, like this strange feeling like a thousand ants were crawling over my skin when the drug began to leave my system. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night with shooting pain. I soon learned to keep the jar close by at all times.
Opiates are both a miracle of science and a curse to humanity. Bypassing the pain receptors at will comes with a huge responsibility, one that falls on a system steeped in corruption. It’s a necessary byproduct of the ability to open up someone’s body, remove a vital organ, and expect that person to live a normal life. But I wasn’t prepared. Not for how blissful I felt when I took the drug; and how incredibly awful I felt as it wore off. When the bottle ran low I got scared. On my follow-up appointment with the doctor I got another month’s worth simply by asking. Whatever the doctor’s concerns were, addiction was certainly not on the radar.
The End of the Addiction
I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve known people go further than rock bottom—sometimes on multiple occasions—before they turned their life around. Opiate addiction is one of the main crises in this day and age. I can’t remember it being on the news too much 12 years ago and maybe that’s partly why I flew under the radar. But the turning point for me was how I acted to my mom.
I remember a time when I popped a pill but it hadn’t kicked in yet. The ants were marching all over my skin and I felt horrible. My mom came into the room to ask if I needed anything. I don’t remember what I said, only the look on her face. She was hurt. When I saw the look on her face I knew that I needed to make a change. Stopping cold turkey was not an option but I could tone it down. I started to scale back the dosage from four times a day to three. The next week it was only a couple times, and perhaps one in the middle of the night. As much as I wanted to though, I couldn’t get completely off the drug for a couple months. The pain was just too great, especially once I became more mobile. But I dodged a bullet that takes far too many lives and I see how slippery the slope truly is.
The Long Recovery
The only thing that made me second guess the entire experience was just how long the recovery process ended up being. I’d say that I’m more active than most. There are days where I have an elevated heart rate for well over 6 hours. Maintaining a resting heart rate all day via doctor’s orders was a nearly impossible task. But I eventually got there. By the fall I was working 10 hour days on a big hotel renovation and my bosses had no clue of my surgery. That was probably for the best because I doubt they would have hired me had they known.
That was the physical recovery, but I suppose by writing now I am finally getting past the emotional recovery. Instead of deflecting the compliments, I welcome them with a warm heart. I’m communicating the experience with those who ask such as what you are reading this very moment. I will seek to support those who are on the fence about donating a kidney through honesty and sharing my own understanding; with the hope that they will go through with it.
The Magic I referred to earlier began with a willful act of donating a healthy kidney, this much is true. I may have started the process but as many people were involved to sustain life in my cousin. It helped create new life in her son who is now 16 months old. I’ve only met the kid a few times but I feel we have a connection too. It’s kind of a trip that a part of me helped clean the blood that created a new life. That’s pretty fucking magic if you ask me. I hadn’t even thought about that until I started writing this piece but wow… that’s an honor that most men will never have.
The Point of this Post
Everyone’s experience is different, and hopefully mine can shed some light for those who are curious. Maybe you are a potential donor and are nervous at the thought of opening yourself up. Maybe you are a family member of a future or past donor and want to know what it’s like. Or maybe you’re reading this Mom, and you were always curious as to why I was such an asshole after the surgery. I swear it was the pills and not me; you know I love you, Mom!
Whoever you are, now you know a bit more about me. Become a donor. It’s worth it.