Donating to My Father-In-Law

My father-in-law, Larry, has had diabetes for some time and he was getting worse.  I believe it was late in 2002 that he called a “family meeting” at their home.  He told all of us that his doctor had put him on the kidney donation list because his were failing and he needed to ask all of his 4 kids to be tested for a match.  My wife and I were trying for a second child at the time, so she was ineligible right from the start.  As it turned out, the other 3 all had minor kidney stones and were themselves ineligible.

A short time later I gave blood at a Red Cross drive near my office and when they sent my ID card it said I had type O+ blood.  Since it was a match for my father-in-law’s type, I had another sample drawn for testing.  We were a perfect match.  I don’t know exactly what the odds are of that but they have to be pretty darn high.  With that finding, there was never any question in my mind that I would go through the rest of the battery of tests to see if I could donate.

By this time, Larry was becoming an old man right before our eyes.  He was still chronologically very young, just 50, but he was being aged by the accumulated waste in his blood.  His skin was grey and puffy and he couldn’t walk faster than a shuffle.  First going to the store tired him out completely, then he couldn’t make it to the back of the store on his feet, and finally he could barely get from the front door to the living room of their split level house.  He had always been an outgoing, energetic man who worked on a trucking line’s dock and put up fencing on the side but in the space of 6 months he had become almost like someone in a nursing home.

When the tests started, they really put me through the wringer.  It seems like I was tested for every disease, condition or weakness known to man – physical and mental.  I’m pretty sure I qualified for the astronaut program by the end of it all.  The social worker and psychologist pressed to make sure I wasn’t under family pressure to donate, but that was never an issue.  I guess they hadn’t had a lot of son-in-laws donating in the past.  Maybe they go over the same things with everyone that enters the program, but it seemed that they stressed that particular question pretty heavily to me.

My daughter was born in May and by late August of ’04 I was given the OK to donate.  We had to get through all of the preparations and get the insurance company up to date on everything but finally the surgery was scheduled for then end of December.  Christmas was a bit strange that year since we were going to the hospital for the surgery in just a few days and neither of us knew quite what to expect.  I know my wife, Joy, was a nervous wreck having her dad and her husband going under the knife at the same time but you would hardly know it to look at her.  She held up great with just an occasional crack in the emotional armor.  I think if she had let herself show how she felt she would have just been a complete mess.

We went to the hospital I think on Monday evening and spent the night in our respective adjoining rooms already dressed for the surgery.  Early the next morning orderlies came and took us down to the surgical prep room.  The whole extended family was there to see us off and wait for the results.  We were separated and I didn’t see him again until the next day.  I was put into a semi-private alcove with instruments reading my vitals and started on a saline drip.  When it was time, an anesthesiologist came in and administered something into my IV to start me down the path to unconsciousness.

I don’t really remember a lot for a while.  We were in surgery for several hours but it was a complete success.  Even when I “woke up” that evening, I wasn’t really there, though and my wife has tried to get me to remember some of that first night but it’s gone.  The next day the hospital staff wanted me to get up and move around some to let the gas that they pumped into my body work its way out.  The surgery was laparoscopic and so wasn’t nearly as traumatic as it once was for donors, but I was not in the mood to go for a walk.  It’s impossible to explain the pain associated with having your abdomen opened to anyone who’s never experienced it and really kind of hard to remember even when you have.  I remembered about this time one of the hospital staff telling me “he’ll come out a new man; you’ll come out feeling like you got hit by a train.”  They were right.  It’s an extreme shock to the body to have an organ removed and takes a bit of time for equilibrium to be restored.  So there I was shuffling ever…so…slowly to the door and into the hall, using my IV tree as a support when Larry comes breezing by me down the hall all but dancing around his tree.  At least it seemed that way to me.

I know he had to hurt, too, but he was moving well and really looked like a new man.  His color was good and he was joking with his nurse.  I hadn’t heard him crack a joke in I don’t know how long.  That made my own discomfort easier to bear, seeing him so quickly and completely transformed.  I made it halfway down the hall before having to go lie back down for a while.  I found out later that he had come into his room after a brief stay in ICU the day before and had immediately had someone turn the A/C to a colder temperature.  He had been freezing for a year but it was suddenly too warm for him in that room.  He sat up and watched TV and laughed with his wife and mine while I lay unconscious in the next room over.  My wife just checked in on me periodically and let me sleep.  My dad had helped out by making a pot of spaghetti so they wouldn’t have to eat hospital cafeteria food.

We celebrated New Years in those rooms and I barely made it to midnight.  My wife and I watched the ball drop in NYC and kissed, and then I went to sleep.  Not nearly as romantic as previous and following years but it was worth it.  I had a fairly steady stream of visiting friends and family while I was in there but I was ready to be at home.  They finally released me after 4 days and I was able to go home.  That’s when the extra fun began.  My wife is a bus driver and leaves the house at 0dark30 to get the kids to her mom and herself to the bus lot.  I was sleeping on the couch at the time (couldn’t get in and out the full-wave waterbed) and when she woke me to tell me they were leaving I felt wet.  I had an open hole in my gut right above my navel that went to the muscle underneath.  There was blood everywhere, but it turned out to have been just a pocket that didn’t heal right.

Joy got on the phone with the surgeon who had performed my side of the operation and we went back downtown right then.  I had to go into surgery one more time to get fixed up correctly.  I apparently won the lottery on my incision as my surgeon told me that about 7% of the incisions result in incisional hernias.  I got to be one of them.  They went back in and double-seamed me like the inseam on a pair of jeans and that seems to have done the trick.

Despite the extra issues I went through I would definitely recommend if you are in the position of being a potential donor, do it.  There’s hardly a better feeling than seeing the recipient of your kidney turning around so quickly and so fully.  Even if the surgery is unsuccessful and a rejection happens you’ll know that you have done something that very few people will do.  It always feels good to give of yourself, but giving of your self is rare and is something you can always be proud of.

I’m writing this on Cinco De Mayo 2009, 1 day after my daughter’s fifth birthday.  She has her “Pappy” to visit with almost every day and he has the energy and life to give her and her brother and cousin’s attention and help when they need it.  If we hadn’t matched like we did or if I had “chickened out” or not gone through the procedure like I did that wouldn’t be the case.  If he was still here he would be an old, old man.  She may have never really known him at all.

We don’t really talk much about the operation and I think that’s the way we both want it.  It was a big deal, but it seems it would cheapen it some to make a big deal of it.  He’s got a lot of good years left with his family because of what I did and I can take pride in knowing I did the right thing for all of us and I get to spend a lot of good years with him as well.