Thirty-six hours after my first kidney transplant, I woke up in the middle of the night in an ICU, all alone except for a friendly nurse.
“How do you feel?” she asked me.
“Pretty good, actually,” I said, “but I’m dying for a cigarette.”
“Come on,” said the nurse. “We can smoke down the hall.”
She led me out of the unit, down the corridor toward a smoking lounge — it was 1981, a more merciful time; hospitals still had such things. On the way, wheeling my IV pole, I passed a mirror — and wondered how in the world I had managed to get a ruddy suntan in a day and a half inside a hospital.
It wasn’t a suntan, of course, it was the contrast. A day and half earlier, I had looked as sere and yellow as a withered parchment. Another year on dialysis, and I would have been dead. Now, 36 hours on, a new, vital engine of health pumped away in my body, donated by my mother, restoring me to health. It was that fast.
Yesterday, I had the same kind of experience in reverse. I looked up one of my back columns, written in October of 2001, and read it in shock. I recognized the vivacious prose as my own, but at the same knew I didn’t write like that anymore, with energy to spare, power to burn. I am fading once again like an old parchment as that 1981 kidney transplant gradually fails. Little things pile on little things, a little at a time. Purple patches of bruise appear under my skin, who knows from what; it gets harder to walk; my concentration flags; fun is sleep.
I work most at not disappearing from my loved ones, from my wife and my two little boys.
Sally, especially, must stand by unable to do anything — and for a women so energetic, not being able to do anything is torment — while I visit doctors, plan the new transplant, take treatments, eat and drink with some care, and handle what I can. It’s like being the wife of a soldier, I suppose, knowing your man is out there somewhere, vulnerable to hidden enemies.
So I do what I can to let her know I’m still here, and that I love her. I can still slog, even if I’m not inspired. I can shop, do housework, take care of the kids, cook, clean up, run errands.
The ghostly world of the Internet suits me very well.
All the physical issues will work out. Odds on transplant are very good these days, far better than when I did it the first time. Doctors nowadays express astonishment that so crude a procedure, handled with such rudimentary immunosuppressant drugs, worked so well. My sister will donate a kidney to me this time. My regular readers will remember “The Transplant That Wasn’t,” about how our first attempt to arrange the operation fell through. The doctors in Boston have consulted with a specialist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, who pioneered a technique for performing successful transplants from donors with the same kind of antibody profile my sister has. We figure that, by taking these extra measures, this one will work. The odds I get are something like nine out of ten. Back in 1984, it was just a little above 50-50.
But the physical part isn’t so important. Instead, I pay attention to staying as real for my family as I can, especially for my wife. It’s kind of like raising children. You can concentrate so much on your children’s needs that, when the kids fly the nest, you turn to your spouse in consternation and wonder, “Who are you?”
In five days or so, I’ll come home from the hospital with a ruddy tan, parchment no more, restored. It is as near a miracle as medicine provides today, virtually identical with full health, as long as you remember your pills.
Right now, I simply do my best to make sure that the man who comes home won’t surprise his wife too much. I want to make sure, even in weakness, that Sally always knows who I am.