Snapshots: donating a kidney circa 1984

My brother is in intensive care. He was admitted to Miami Valley Hospital early this morning suffering from shortness of breath and severe fatigue. His skin was yellowish gray. He is diagnosed with kidney failure and a staph infection in his blood.

The next day Tony’s urologist allows us to stay in the room while he hooks his new patient up for a dialysis treatment. Muthiah lifts the sheet and takes a needle connected to a clear, plastic hose connected to a complicated machine and inserts it into Tony’s groin. Tony winces in pain from the stick; blood starts to flow into the hose. Muthiah leads us, my father and mother and sister and I into the corridor and tells us about Tony’s condition in detail. He can get by for a while on dialysis, but Muthiah proposes a kidney transplant as the best option for long term survival. He asks us to consider being tested for tissue compatibility. We are all somewhat stunned by the doctor’s speech. And while the doctor doesn’t direct any attention to me more than the others, I know in my gut that I am the best candidate.

I’m in my apartment overlooking Irving Ave. staring out the window. It’s a gray day in late February and I’ve just gotten off the phone having received the news that I’ve been waiting for for two months. The date of the surgery has finally been set, and I’ve got a couple of weeks to get things squared away at home and at work. I’ve been preparing for this moment ever since the test results came back in December telling us that Tony and I are nearly perfect matches. I’m surprised, however by a chill, numbing sensation that is spreading from the center of my chest outward. The phone call brought with it a premonition that I would die on the operating table, and the fear that I’m feeling is different from the hot flush of wavering dread I usually get when facing a physical threat. This kind of fear feels cold and heavy, and it eventually settles deep in my guts where I know it will stay until this whole thing is over.

I’m sitting in a hospital bed in a double room on a floor of Miami Valley Hospital dedicated to kidney cases and pre-op patients waiting for abdominal surgery. My roommate was taken in for gall bladder surgery earlier in the day, and I watched as he prayed intently with his minister to prepare himself for whatever eventuality his operation would bring. I am an agnostic, but find myself envying the man his faith. I have been beset throughout the day by Catholic priests of the unctuous variety who have decided to pray over me (at my mother’s behest) without my consent. I feel that I’m doing them a favor by listening to them drone on and on. A former army chaplain wanders into my room that evening after supper and he is looking at a list. He has just visited my brother in a room across the hall, and he is confused by my last name. He thinks that I’m another kidney patient, and can’t believe that two members of the same family are suffering from the same malady at the same time. He laughs when I set him straight. He speaks to me in a straight forward manner for a few minutes and says a simple prayer. I am comforted.

A young nurse’s aide comes into my room early the next morning and shaves off my pubic hair. She appears to be embarrassed. My penis looks forlorn and ridiculous without its mane and I am embarrassed too. I am hooked up to an IV and a nurse starts a drip of a sedative that is supposed to calm my nerves. My parents and fiance are with me in the room and they look grim and nervous when they think that I’m not looking at them. Another nurse comes into the room just as they begin wheeling me out to the hall. She is the mother of a woman that I had dated for about a year, and although the relationship with her daughter ended acrimoniously, she is here to see me off. I’m touched and comforted by the sincerity of her concern. My gurney is pushed down several branching hallways and my family and fiance are left behind. I am left alone (without any explanation from the orderly who abandoned me) in an old, cluttered room off a deserted corridor that looks like it had once been a laboratory of some kind. Several minutes pass by and the sedative is no longer working. I’m eventually collected by a nurse who wheels me into a cold, white tiled room where I will be given anesthesia. I am told to lie down on a hard metal table that feels like it has been chilled to near freezing. The anesthesiologist walks into the room and discovers something amiss and starts to throw a tantrum. He yells and tosses sheets of paper around, and the nurse standing by my side looks distraught. I’m terrified that this man will be administering drugs to me, but manage to lean over to the nurse and whisper, “This guy is a real asshole.” Her face breaks up for a moment as if she’s trying to suppress a smile. The doctor calms down and walks over to me with the biggest needle I’ve ever seen in his hand. He tells me to lie on my side and curl up in a ball. He injects my spine. The needle stick feels uncomfortable, but not all that painful, and then there’s blackness.

I wake up in a recovery room. The room is full of people lying on gurneys, moaning and crying out in pain. There’s a bag of blood and a bag of plasma on an IV pole by my bed, and I watch the plasma drip, drip, drip down a hose and into my arm. I’m in intense pain. My guts feel as if they’ve been torn up and clumsily sewn back together with strands of barbed wire. A male nurse appears above me and says something to me that I can’t quite follow. My attention is focused instead on my rapidly filling bladder. The pressure from its expansion is causing fresh, new sensations of pain at the base of my guts. I ask for a urinal, but can’t manage to pee. I ask for a catheter because I much prefer to have something shoved up my dick than to continue feeling that my bladder is about to explode. The surgeon, who is somewhere else in the hospital, has to be found and consulted before I can be given relief, and ten or fifteen long minutes pass as I watch the plasma drip and feel my bladder expand. The nurses finally get approval, and when the urine is finally released the relief is so intense that I feel that I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m still in a lot of pain, but I’m getting somewhat used to it. But then three nurses approach my bed and tell me that it’s time to change the linens. When I roll on my side as ordered my bruised intestines shift inside my abdomen and the pain becomes excruciating. I scream. I’m aware that the scream is making everyone else feel uncomfortable, but while I’m inside that noise and that release of emotion I feel all right. It’s worse when I stop screaming and I hear them tell me to roll on my other side. I know what’s coming.

They leave me alone for a while after the bed has been changed, and the pain returns to normal levels of hellishness. There’s a clock on the wall that’s broken. It is 3:00. It is always 3:00. One could get the impression that one has been condemned to a world where time stands still and suffering never ends. The patients around me are still groaning and crying out, and they appear to corroborate that impression. My fiance Judy and my mother visit me and I vaguely register their looks of concern. They appear to be suffering just as much as I am. A male nurse comes by after they’ve left and asks me if I want a sponge bath. He gives it to me, and the bath turns into a massage, and I’m disturbed by the little smile that creases his lips as his hands work their way over my body. I’m completely helpless and I begin to question his intentions, but the pain and the medications are probably driving me a bit loopy and paranoid. Later on the nurses decide to change my linens once again, and I suspect that they’re rolling me around for some other purpose. My sheets are fresh and clean once more after I’ve given them another round of screaming. A female nurse who looks like an angel leans over my bed and tells me that she admires me for what I’ve done. I think that this is one hell of a way to meet good looking women.

I am taken from post-op late that evening and put into a bed on the same floor where I had previously been. Nurses come into the room and take my vitals every hour or so, and I can’t get much sleep. I’ve been given some morphine and am resting in a warm cocoon of comfort for as long as the dose works its charms. An older nurse, an LPN, comes in around three in the morning and takes my pulse. She rearranges my blankets and pillow and makes me feel much more comfortable. I give her a smile of thanks and she warmly smiles back at me. I fall asleep and the day is finally over.

*My operation went amiss and I almost died on the table. The pain I felt went beyond normal levels because of surgical complications. Surgeries today are done using laparoscopic techniques and are much less traumatic.

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