Reflections from My Father's Transplant

My boyfriend stood tall on the suede couch (much to my dismay) yelling out touchdown as the commentators described the long, lean length and speed of Ginn's legs (only in sports would that seem like a relatively normal discussion between straight men). It was Sunday afternoon and I was not apart of this celebration.  Nor, did I want to be.  I was knee-deep in a story about a 4-year old girl who was suffering from heart failure.  The toothy grin on my boyfriend's face did nothing to stop my steady stream of tears.  The little girl was featured in a book that I am currently reading, that follows the lives of cardiothoracic (heart and lung) surgeons and their patients, called The Surgeons: Life and Death Inside a Top Heart Center.

The child, having survived with sickness and misdiagnosis until the age of 4, was finally properly diagnosed with irreversible heart failure.  Her only option was to receive a transplant, one that would be risky due to her pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the vessels of the lungs).   After many agonizing days in the hospital, a young heart became available and she was given the gift of life.  Her parents described their mixture of joy and fear as they waited outside of the OR.  They feared that the hypertension would prove too cumbersome to complete the transplant, but also felt overjoyed at this chance of life for their little girl.  Unfortunately, the smile on her face as she was wheeled into the OR that morning was the last smile they would ever see from their little girl.  After nearly two weeks by her side, they were forced to pull the life support and allow their daughter to pass. 

Seeing that my eyes were blood shot red and I was nearly to the point of sobbing, my boyfriend muted the game and turned to me.  Tell me about the little girl's story, he said.  Believing that would ease my sadness (and probably so he could continue watching the game without guilt!).  As I began to explain the story of the girl, I came to the realization that I was not only emotional because of this little girl, but for the life of my father as well. 

When my Dad had his double lung transplant 8 years ago, I was not emotional.  I did not discuss his illness with best friends, teachers, or classmates. I believed this was a family issue that was only to be discussed within the family. Looking back, perhaps I was embarrassed that my father was sick...but another time another blog.  He received the call during the summer, so nobody knew about it besides my two best girlfriends and only because this meant I had to essentially disappear for a couple of weeks.  I remember the evening vividly, the long drive to meet my father at the hospital who had been flown by air-med a few hours before.  Due to a delay in harvesting, my father was not yet in surgery.  I stayed in his hospital room and we talked (a conversation filled with dry humor as is often the case between my father and I) and watched television together while my mother caught up on sleep.  Within a few hours, he was wheeled away to the operating room.  There were no tears.  I simply hugged him and told him I loved him.  By this time it had been over 24 hours since I last slept, so I curled up on the waiting room couch and slept. I assume many could not imagine sleeping peacefully as their loved one was in the OR, survived only by the use of a heart-lung machine.  But, there were no fears in my mind, no worry, no anxiety. My mind had decided there could be no problems in surgery.

As I anticipated, we heard that everything went smoothly and that he was in the ICU.  In many ways I am thankful that the memory of my Dad in the ICU is very vague.  I cannot easily picture the tubes, machines and the sterile feel.  Again, I spent little time worrying.  I do remember his eyes opening wide with panic as I walked into the room, but was told this was due to his realization of the breathing tube.  As the nurse and I stood by him, he instantly settled down and closed his eyes again.  Never did I questioned whether or not his eyes would ever open up again.  I was old enough to know there was a chance his body could instantly reject the foreign organ, the first week being most crucial.  But for whatever reasons I did not accept that as a plausible option.  Again, I had no fear, no worry, no anxiety. 

Unlike in the case with the little girl, my father awoke, his breathing tube was removed within 3 days, he was walking within a week and released to the hospital apartment within 2 weeks.  He has survived for eight years because of a gift from not only the donor/donor's family, but from God.  A gift that I took without fear or realization that God held the option to take it away. 

As my father awaits for yet another chance at life due to his body chronically rejecting the lungs, I am suddenly overwhelmed with the realization of the possibility of death.  Just as the girl was given the gift of life, God's will had overshadowed it. I sat on the couch crying yesterday, thinking about the short and sometimes painful life that little girl had to lead, for the acceptance and faith in God's will that her parents held and for the selfish greed I had when my father received his gift of life. 

I could use my age at the time as an excuse, or the fact that I was trying to be strong for my mother; but I realize now that I didn't fully respect the enormity of the surgery and the gift we were given.  The donor family elected to remain anonymous and my family was never able to personally thank them for the life they have given us.  Instead, I would like to give my up most thanks and gratitude to all donor families as a whole.  If not for them, my father would have missed my niece's 1st birthday, my high school and college graduations, my brother's wedding.  But most of all, I would have missed the conversations I have had with my father over the last 8 years, dry humor and all, as he has become my biggest fan and best friend.  I will be forever grateful for the donor's family unselfish gift; as they lost their son, I received eight years of memories that will stay with my a lifetime. I can only pray for 8 more years of memories, but realizing this time is under God's will.

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