January 31, 2014
Post-transplant day #51, pulmonary rehab #24.
I strip off my sweaty workout clothes. Then, like the newly blind, my fingers slowly and curiously trace the line of brail that tells the most recent chapter in my life story. The rivulet of new, pink fibrotic tissue leads my fingertips from one armpit to the other along a meandering course, detouring below both breasts, but rising in a graceful arc across my sternum. But I encounter not soft, yielding newly-mended flesh, but rather the protective metal bridges forcibly punched into my skin, spanning from one bank to the other, feeling being gained along the short trip south across the incision.
My breasts are numb. Most of the nerves that pick up sensation come upward, from below and behind. Saving my life meant cutting through those nerves, leaving my nipples, aereola, and surrounding breasts deadened. Yet immediately south of the scar, sensation has returned almost completely, the nerve endings there still having a pathway back to my brain.
As my fingers play the counting game, starting at one armpit and attempting to single out each individual staple along the way, testing, pushing a little, seeing which ones are firm and which ones wiggle, I come across a livelier zone of sensation. Across my sternum, both sides of the river of scar tissue are active. Sensation in the north and the south. Then I am again back in familiar territory - a mirrored map of the other side, still with sensation below the line of demarcation, none above.
This long river of a scar, paired with the outpost glacial lake above it, marking where my port once stood proud of my chest, is now the story of my life. Well, two lives, really. Four, if you want to get technical.
After rehab today, a few of us made impromptu plans for dinner, ending up at an ale house. In the course of conversation, it came up that of the three of us transplantees who were there, one is a retransplant and that the first time around, she received seven units of blood. I got to thinking about that. I'd almost forgotten about the blood transfusions.
First transplants are generally less bloody, as the scalpel cauterizes as it goes. My own transplant went well, yet I required two blood transfusions afterwards [I don't know how many units (if any) during the operation]. But at 4:28 a.m. December 11th, and again at 6:47 a.m., I required extra blood. Two units of blood from two strangers who donated at some point in the last few weeks. People who didn't know how or when or why their blood would be used - or even if - yet took time out of their busy schedules to donate just in case it could be used.
Which means that not only did one stranger save my life, but three. Though the body replaces blood, I will forever have a small part of two other living souls in me, as well as a large part of one deceased donor. I am grateful even for these smaller, easier donations, for without the simple blood transfusions, i would not have made it.
As my fingers trace my zipper of staples, my thoughts are directed again towards my main donor. Who was this person? What were they like? I have no way of knowing right now; not even if my donor was a man or woman, old or young. I love how these lungs feel in me and how well they'e doing - so I imagine my donor to be much like me: male, approaching middle age or slightly younger, about my size. I don't believe he ever smoked a day in his life. I think he may have been physically fit in general, if not an athlete. This is all supposition, of course. I am imagining a person I can easily admire and so feel closer kinship, reassuring myself that my new lungs once belonged to someone I could have called brother.
Perhaps it is completely different. Maybe these lungs came from a person I would be unable to connect with in usual society. Sassy, loud and proud black woman? Tiring Chinese immigrant empty-nester? Regular ol' white trash with no education, no morals, no self-control? Perhaps. And if so, then even then I embrace that person as my brother or sister and am forever grateful - because for whomever he (or she) may have been, whatever good or bad he did in life, whatever impact he made or failed to make on the people around him, he did three things so absolutely right: he took good care of his lungs in his lifetime, he consented to be an organ donor, and he let his family know his wishes. And for those acts, he saved my life.
I have no way to thank him directly. Never will be able to. But I can live life for two, now. I can honor the multiplicity of lives that have combined to keep mine going by living each day fully, setting new goals, exploring new territory, achieving new successes, giving back to the community with my time and energy. I have no choice in this. To walk away from Durham and live only for myself would be a sin.
Tonight, sitting at the table with two close friends, totaling four complete double-lung transplants and multiple transfusions, I was struck by how many souls really partook in our humble meal, and that three of us are living for six of us. Tonight I am reminded that the best way to honor my donor's sacrifice is to live doubly; for now, I breathe for two.