Monday, April 27, 2009

When a stranger calls...

It was the telephone that woke me up, jangling insistently like a rude alarm clock.

I sat up, struggling to find my even keel in the middle-of-the-night darkness. My throat tightened as I hesitantly said hello. Phone calls in the middle of the night are never good news… or so I thought.

“May I please speak with Christopher Dixon?” asked the voice at the other end.
“May I ask who’s calling?” [at such an ungodly hour, asked the voice inside my head.]
“It’s the transplant unit. We have a donor kidney for Christopher.”

I breathed, listening to make sure I remembered that moment.

Chris was a very sound sleeper and I had to literally shake him awake, he hadn’t even heard the phone. “It’s the transplant unit, they have a kidney.” I said – quite calmly in retrospect – before I handed him the phone, making sure he was awake.

We were both wide awake now. I sat on the bed beside Chris and never took my eyes off his face as he answered and asked questions for a few minutes. When he hung up, we looked at each other, our eyes filled with hope, anxiety, nervousness, love.

Surprisingly, you’re not expected to run red lights when you get that call. “Take your time, don’t panic, bring a few things in a small overnight bag… we’ll see you when you get here.” And so we did just that. I packed socks, underwear, pyjama pants, razor, toothbrush/toothpaste, my list of people to call, and a roll of quarters that we had kept in the drawer for just this occasion.

We were out the door in 15 minutes flat. The taxi ride to the hospital was quiet. We held hands as we watched darkened houses rush by our windows.

The hospital was brightly lit but the hallways were empty as we quickly made our way up to the transplant unit.

Things happen pretty quickly once you get there. You’re assigned a room – always private, for fear of infection in immune-suppressed transplant patients. Blood is drawn for last-minute tests. X-rays are done to check for infections. Electrodes are mapped out across the body to monitor heart activity on an EKG machine.

In between tests, you sit and wait. Your mind racing. Your heart racing. The thumping isn’t loud enough to drown out the fears, the excitement, the what if’s. Transplants are not a miracle cure – they’re a therapy, an interim measure. They don’t last forever. The surgery – like any surgery – is risky. Chris and I had had all those conversations many times. So we sat and we waited, wondering which room along the hall sheltered the other anxious kidney recipient. I watched the sky turn indigo and then golden pink as the sun crept up to meet us at the horizon.

I called Chris’ parents to tell them that we were at the hospital, that there was a donor kidney for Chris, that I would call later when I had an update.

I remember the nurse coming in. “I’m sorry, but the kidney isn’t a close enough match.”

Eyes blinking. Empty silence. As suddenly as it began, it was over.

How to put into words that floor-falling-away feeling? The adrenaline and exhaustion suddenly colliding inside your head, your heart, your stomach which minutes before had been churning with anxious elation. Sitting in the patient lounge, our arms limply encircling each other, as the rising sun shot through the drapes and bled down the wall.

We quietly checked out and walked down the hall, leaving ‘our’ kidney to the next candidate on the list. The list really is life…

The rest of that day is a fog in my memory. I know that we both stayed home from work, sleeping a bit, eating a bit. I know I called Chris’ parents to break the news but I don’t remember calling them.

I’ve never had a miscarriage and I can’t pretend that it’s the same feeling but it’s the closest thing I can imagine – coming home empty-handed and empty-hearted instead of joyful. It was a very quiet day, a sad day.

We went for a walk and thought about the person who had died, their family who had consented to organ donation – who were they? We thought of the other people like us who had received long-awaited calls for lungs and heart and liver and corneas and kidneys. Were they in surgery or in recovery by now? Their families waiting anxiously for news of a successful surgery, preparing for the possibly bumpy road to full recovery.

We wondered when the next call might come.

1 comment:

alison said...

I remember that call for Amelia's first transplant: we had a pager and were sitting in the living room and I kept saying, "what's that weird buzzing noise?" It was the pager on the dining table where I'd emptied it from my pockets. Being 16, Amelia was at the top of the donor list: they wanted to save any living donors for the (inevitable) next transplant. We'd only had to wait 7 months. Mostly I remember thinking about the family of the donor -- a 9-year-old -- and how raw and horrible their own pain must have been. Amelia and I would celebrate the "transplantiversary" with a quiet moment remembering the donor and his/her family. It truly is a remarkable gift.