Matt Probus, Featured Collaborator
This is the second stop in a three-leg trip through my kidney donation adventure. If you didn’t get a chance to read my first article, check it out in last month’s issue.
After coming to grips with the fact that I was actually going to give a kidney to my older brother, I counted the months, the weeks, and finally the days until the surgery. It was scheduled for January 15, 2016. I hadn’t come to rest on whether I thought of it as a late Christmas present to Mike or a twisted New Year’s resolution in the making for me. As the date grew closer, the two sides of the coin of life became ever clearer to me: the reality of mortality and the beauty of life. The transplant team had continually stressed to me that a possible risk of the surgery was death. Yes, death. This was serious surgery. People die in surgery. People certainly die in serious surgery. I had to realize and accept the possibility that I could die in surgery. Even typing this, I can’t repeat it enough. I was told I could die.
At 52, I knew I was no spring chicken, but I had never thought about my own death in those real terms – with a date certain. Now I did. A lot. But at the same time that I contemplated my own death—well at least the possibility of it—I saw vividly (clearly, sharply, even in Technicolor) the beauty of life. Not some grand notion of life – oh, the depth or complexity thereof, blah blah blah – but the simple wonder of every tiny thing that made up each day of being alive. Wind on my face. Clouds drifting overhead. The curve of my wife’s neck. A smile on a stranger’s face at the grocery store. I couldn’t walk through my day without seeing every little part of life like it was being pulled apart, put on a conveyor belt, and rolled before me at a crawl. And I loved every minute of it. At night I wanted to watch my wife’s face as she drifted off to sleep. In the morning, I wanted to sit beside her in bed until the last minute before I knew I absolutely had to get up and get dressed for work. I thought about my childhood. I thought about my dad who passed away too young. I thought about my daughter the day she was born and the first time she ran to me when I got home from work and the way she looked when she went to her first dance with a boy.
The day before the surgery came, and I thought I was ready for it. You are never ready for something like that. In the previous article, I didn’t describe my many appointments and tests in the nine months leading up to the surgery, but the all day sessions in San Antonio at the transplant center were grueling. Donors have to arrive at a ridiculously early hour of the morning, which meant leaving Houston at “dark-thirty” to arrive on time. The day before the surgery was no different. We had to arrive first thing in the morning. After a long drive in pitch-black dark on I-10, we wandered into reception at the transplant center. Mike and Luz walked in shortly after we did.
Our first stop was for blood work and urine samples. This was the first time Mike and I were at the transplant center together. After those tests, we all went upstairs to see the transplant coordinator, who walked us through exactly what would happen the day of the surgery and the days and weeks following surgery. After that we toured the transplant hospital so we could see exactly where we would be during each step of the process. After the tour, Mike and I split up to meet separately with our respective surgeons.
Joi and I sat quietly in the small office waiting on him. It wasn’t long before he came bounding in with a file in hand — my file. He shook our hands, reintroduced himself, sat down, and cracked open the file. His first comment was, as far as I could tell, a strange attempt at humor. “Let’s see, we’re taking out one of your kidneys right? The left one? Or is it the right? Let me see what it says here.” A quick eye shooting up to see if I got the joke. From that point on it was all no nonsense. He went through the details of how the surgery would actually work. When he finished, he began walking us through the risks. I had the option of stopping the entire process right then and there. He made it clear. This was a voluntary surgery. No pressure at all. Say the word and it would be cancelled. Mike would only be told that something came up that disqualified me as a donor. This was all interspersed between the discussions of risks. Stroke. Blood loss to the point of transfusion. Heart attack. Death. There it was again. Death. He didn’t sugar coat it. He painted it realistically. It would be rare, but it was possible. I was in excellent health, but they couldn’t make promises. Anesthesia itself is risky. Any major surgery is risky. Was I only hearing this part as if it were being repeated over and over in slow motion? Was it because I was the one who would be lying on a table under his care with a risk of death? Regardless, he had to hear me say the magic words — “Yes, I still want to go forward.” He stressed that I could even change my mind in the morning. At any time, all I had to do was say the word and it would be over immediately. When our meeting concluded, he jumped up and bounced out of the room as quickly as he had entered it.
We stayed at a hotel across the freeway from the transplant hospital. We would have to be up at 4:00 am in order to make our pre-op check-in and set up at the hospital. Mike and Luz were already in the hospital lobby when Joi and I arrived. We barely had a chance to talk before a nurse came to lead us to the pre-op room. We were weighed, poked and prodded a bit, then promptly stripped down to nothing in two adjoining curtained off areas, a gurney for each of us. Our mom, younger brother (Mark), and two younger sisters (Marci and Mary) showed up soon after we were in hospital gowns and surgical hose. Our mom walked in, looked at us on our gurneys, in our gowns, and promptly broke into hysterical tears. Her raw emotion brought the situation home. Two brothers being prepared for a life-risking and life-saving surgery. A mother with two sons at stake. Two wives sitting by their husbands wondering what the next four hours of their lives, what the rest of their lives, would hold in store. I could feel my heart skip a few beats. My stomach lifted up into my chest. A wrench twisted my gut. My sisters calmed down my mom and the nurses — a team of them — began swarming around us like honeybees on honeysuckle bushes. IVs were installed, questionnaires read out loud, forms signed even with IVed hands, surgical tape strapping things down, instruction being given. My mind was reeling from it all. I glanced over at Joi periodically and felt tears welling up behind my eyes. I choked them back each time. It was too late to cry. The anesthesiologist came in with questions about medical history and explanations about the procedure. The woman who would take my kidney from my room to Mike’s came in. Yes, there is a person whose sole job is to take the kidney from the surgeon, secure it in a small cart, wheel it across the hall to the next operating room, and hand it to the other surgeon on the “install” team. My wife, ever the wit, caught her off guard with, “Do you ever worry you’ll drop it?” to which the messenger, with a look of horror on her face, replied, “Oh don’t even joke about that!” The surgeons were the last to visit. I had the removal surgeon; Mike had the install surgeon. They were both calm. Confident. Even cocky. They projected an air of “everything will be just fine. See ya on the field, kid.”
Then there was the calm before the storm. All the doctors and nurses were gone. We were left alone: Mike and I, our wives, our mom, and our brother and sisters. We joked. We laughed. Then just as it seemed normal, a team of three nurses slipped in and surrounded my gurney. “It’s time,” the head nurse said. “Are you ready?” I was and they began to wheel me out. Joi gave me a last kiss, tears streaming down her face. I found myself being wheeled away.
Something occurred to me just then. I’d had surgeries before. They always give you something to make you doped up as you lay in pre-op. To relax you. To keep you from being anxious or panicking. I had nothing in me. I was clearheaded and aware as I could be. I wondered if they had forgotten my special relaxation meds. As I was knocking that thought around in my head, they had me outside in the hallway on the way to the operating room. They had been joined by two male OR nurses. Now I had five nurses around my gurney and they pushed me up against the wall and stopped. The head nurse looked down at me and asked me if I still wanted to go through with the surgery. What? I thought. Seriously? Here we were in the hallway outside of the operating room, with me in a gown, IVs in my hands, and surgical hose on my legs and she wants to know if I want to just call the whole thing off? They all nodded and said Mike would only be told that a last minute test came back and I had been disqualified as a donor. I didn’t miss a beat. “I’m in. Let’s do this.” The wheels started moving again.
The operating room experience before I went under was just too terrifying to describe. I really wish they had given me those relaxation meds, although I now understood why they hadn’t — they needed a very clearheaded donor to say in front of multiple witnesses that he wanted to push through. Anyway, I got to choose the music that would be played throughout surgery. Yes, surgeons jam as they operate. I chose Santana. The nurses looked very happy about that. Then . . . lights out.
Now many will not believe this, but I dreamed during my surgery. I later asked my surgeon and he said some people report having dreamed. But the next thing I knew I was hearing someone say “Can you hear me? Are you awake? Can you hear me? Are you awake?” I opened my eyes, saw a nurse standing over me, and promptly said, “Oh my God, I’m alive!” And I was alive. As I lay recovering in post-op, all I could think was that I was alive. That I had a second shot after all. That this beautiful thing life would go on a bit longer. I knew I would never be the same person. I had accepted the possibility of death, given life to my brother, and been given more life to live myself.
Matt Probus is an attorney in Houston, Texas practicing business and commercial litigation. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky and raised in the Midwest before finding Texas and calling it home. His passions are guitar, art, and poetry.