A true story. This happened last week. Names changed for privacy.
It’s Wednesday evening and Carl and Bob are playing a round of golf and talking about their lives and their health the way middle aged men do. Bob is suffering from some sort of disease, and his kidneys are failing. In fact, he’s sort of down to half a kidney now, and his quality of life is going to drop sharply when it fails. He’s on the transplant waiting list, but the list is long and there are many younger people with better bodies and worse kidneys in line ahead of him.
Carl gets back to his car and sees someone has been frantically calling his cell. His wife Alice has fallen ill. He rushes to the hospital. She’s been life-flighted from the local hospital to the bigger one in Pittsburgh.
Alice has been suffering for years with PBC, a disease that (eventually) destroys the liver. Her liver has been slowly degrading for over a decade now, and she’s known for a long time that she’d eventually need a transplant. Because of this she’s become something of an organ donor activist, encouraging people to become donors and raising awareness on the issue. Her advocacy is mild and friendly, and comes mostly in the form of bumper stickers, pins, and webpage badges.
But PBC isn’t her problem right now. She had a massive headache all day, and then collapsed. Apparently she’s had an aneurysm.
Her fortunes and her prognosis change a great deal overnight. She stops breathing for a moment and has to be resuscitated. Once they get her stable they see that it looks like a minor bleed and that she might wake up very soon. Then things look a little dicey and her vitals deteriorate. But she seems to be responding to stimulus and looks able to wake up on her own if she weren’t being sedated. Then she suffers complications. The loose blood in her head causes intense irritation. Her brain swells rapidly. She’s in the ICU under the care of a number of neurological experts, but there is nothing anyone can do to stop the process once it begins. Within the space of a couple of hours her brain is basically destroyed without hope of recovery. She’s gone.
When people die a more conventional cardiac death, the lack of circulation in the body usually destroys most of the organs shortly after the heart stops. Someone that drops dead of a heart attack or bleeds to death in a car accident won’t be able to donate much. Usually just the kidneys and the liver survive something like this. But Alice has died in such a way that she will be able to donate everything. She’s the ideal donor. This is a comfort to the family, to know that she will be able to take part in a cause that was so dear to her. Her passing will change the lives of perhaps a dozen people. Some of them will live because she died.
Her husband Carl is able to directly designate his golfing buddy as a kidney recipient, and by blind luck it turns out he’s compatible. The next day Bob goes in and receives one of Alice’s kidneys.
Alice was my mother in law, who passed away last weekend. Her birthday is this week. She would have turned 56.
Of all the things that can go suddenly wrong – heart attacks, infections, car crashes, falling pianos – I think aneurysms creep me out the most. My father had one at just 29 years old, and while he managed to survive it nevertheless took a massive toll on the remaining 30 years of his life. Aneurysms are just so dang random. You can eat right, exercise regularly, have fantastic family history, avoid all dangerous habits, practice safe driving in your Volvo while always remembering to wear your seatbelt, use lots of sunscreen, and then end up getting killed by a bad patch in any of the miles of blood vessels inside your skull. It’s completely unpredictable and unavoidable. It’s a game of Russian roulette that everyone is playing every moment they’re alive.
I say my goodbyes at her bedside on Friday afternoon. Her mind is gone by this point, but her heart is still beating. I stand there looking down at what was once a loving and exhaustively talkative woman, wishing I could do something for her. Or for someone else in the room. Anything, really. There’s never anything intelligent or useful to say at times like this. It just hurts until it stops, and everyone has their own way of dealing with that pain.
As I look at her slack face, stuffed full of cold medical apparatus, I am suddenly yanked back to a memory from seventeen years ago. My girlfriend Heather and I had been out on a date. We wanted to keep hanging out, but her curfew had arrived. I was twenty-one years old and more or less in charge of myself, but she was eighteen. She was recently graduated but still very much living under the rules of your average highschooler. So she went into the house, went downstairs, and let me in the basement door. There was a game room down there and we were going to play some Nintendo. Her mom would probably say no to this, so Heather just didn’t bother to mention it when she came through the house. Classic teenager logic. I knew this was unwise, but hey: Girlfriend and Nintendo?
Her mom sensed something fishy, and came down and found us before we could even get the thing turned on. We were made to endure a scolding at the hands of her mother for our subterfuge. She scowled at me, the no-good boyfriend of her daughter. She glowered at me with that puckered-mouth frown that only she could do.
Bet you never guessed things would turn out like this, did you, Shamus?
I have no idea why I’m remembering the scolding here at her bedside in the hospital. Perhaps because it’s simply my oldest memory of her. Perhaps because a bad memory would hurt less than a joyful one, and I’m trying to ease into this. The game room and the Nintendo I never got to play both seem a thousand miles away and a million years ago from here in 2009.
In memory of Alice, I thought I might gently suggest that you consider organ donation. I hope you’ll forgive this brief dalliance with advocacy here on this site. I wanted to get this story out of my system.
I promise we’ll get back to the videogame stuff Real Soon Now.
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