Matt Probus, Featured Collaborator
This past Friday, I was in Austin for a State Bar committee meeting. After it had ended, I had a few hours before I had to brave the drive home to Houston, so I called Mike and asked if he had time for a drink. He was free and excited to meet. Thirty minutes later I was in the lounge of the Omni South Hotel waiting for Mike to join me. Not long after I sat down, Mike came bounding in. His face was bright and full of color. We hugged and sat down to talk. We exchanged stories of how great we felt and the latest in our physical recovery. Mike has been working with a personal trainer for a few months and does a weekly grueling full body workout lasting nearly an hour and a half. He takes walks every day at lunch; and, eats healthy. He realizes the importance of posture and core tone. I talked about my recent focus on swimming and upper body strength. The descriptions of our various core exercises led to exchanges of each of our paranoid thoughts about possible post-recovery incidents. Mike shared his greatest fear – that the newly installed connection between his kidney and his ureter would somehow pop loose. I shared my fear – that the clamped and sewn artery once connected to my now missing kidney would suddenly pop open leaving me to bleed out within 6 minutes. We laughed a dark laugh that only a donor and recipient can laugh together.
It was incredible to be sitting with my brother a little more than a year after the kidney surgery, both of us perfectly recovered and healthy. Sure he is now on anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life, and I am forbidden from taking ibuprofen for the rest of my life; but otherwise happy and healthy. The day of the surgery seems a lifetime ago, but the memories are still fresh. Memories of taking my first heavily assisted walk (more like a shuffle) just outside my hospital room door with one hand on my IV pole, one hand grabbing the nurse’s arm, and a catheter swinging somewhere painfully beneath my hospital gown. Memories of waking up in the middle of the night the night after the surgery to the pain of a thousand Chuck Norris roundhouse kicks to my lower abdomen when the internal pain block (Transversus Abdominis Plane (TAP) block as I recall) wore off. Memories of the 3-hour drive back to Houston from San Antonio a few days after the surgery, and the feeling that every crack in the freeway was shooting needles through the passenger seat into my five-inch vertical incision that ran from my the base of my navel down to my upper groin. Yes, such memories are hard to shake.
How did I get from that hospital room to the hotel bar? How did I heal my body, mind, and spirit in a year? It started in the hospital bed hours after I was out of surgery. In my morphine riddled state of mind, I reminded myself of the three commitments I swore before the surgery. If I lived through the surgery, I would:
(1) Truly LIVE the rest of my life;
(2) Never complain to my wife during recovery – not one day; and,
(3) Set a physical fitness goal some months down the road and develop a day-by-day plan to get me there.
Each of these commitments took daily and even hourly effort. Each required mindfulness and will power:
The Commitment to LIVE!
The first days and weeks after the surgery I re-discovered beauty and meaning in life. It’s hard to explain, but imagine being transported into Dorothy’s mind in the Wizard of Oz when she walks out of the house into Oz and Technicolor bursts through the black and white. Everything I saw around me looked sharp, bright, and beautiful. Every time someone spoke to me, it was interesting and enjoyable. Every time my wife looked at me, my heart grew warm, and light. I felt our love in new ways. Every time I ate, a thousand flavors filled my mouth. When I was finally able to take walks outside the house, I would stare up at the sky in wonder, listen to the birds, and feel wind brushing my face. So taking time every day to live life was not difficult at all. After my two-week check-up, I was cleared to drive and return to work part-time. I eased back into the routine of work and home as the months clicked by. It is harder to feel like you are living life when you’ve been at work for thirteen hours straight preparing for a hearing that starts early the next morning. Harder, but not impossible. I would catch myself at those moments, put my papers down, stare out my office window, and lose myself in thought. It didn’t matter what I thought. Sometimes about a friend. Sometimes about Joi. Sometimes about a place I wanted to go or a trip I wanted to take. Sometimes, I would start scrolling through pictures on my phone of past vacations. A fifteen-minute break to enjoy life even if I had to be at the office. I still do this. I did it this afternoon at my desk. And when I am not at my desk – I LIVE!
The Commitment Not to Complain
Never complaining to Joi was not easy. Don’t get me wrong. I suffered terrible pain the week after the surgery and rehab and recovery was as tough as it gets. I’m sure Joi could hear it in my voice or see it on my face at times; maybe all the time. But I never outright complained about my condition or my pain. Joi allowed me to go through with the surgery and supported me in every step of the process. She sat in that waiting room for hours wondering if I was okay. She would be my recovery partner for weeks, bringing me food, medicine and cleaning up after me. That was enough for her to have to stomach. The last thing she needed was to hear my grip and complain. It took a lot of lip biting, sometimes constant lip biting, but I did it. It was worth every second of silent pain. It helped my attitude, and I think it helped the pain. Not talking about the pain kept the pain out of my mind.
The Commitment to Physical Fitness
The last promise was my physical recovery path. I knew that without a goal, it would be far harder to get myself into the shape I was in before surgery. The goal I chose was to finish a Triathlon within a year after the surgery. To get to that goal, I developed a detailed, incremental plan starting from the absolute beginning – walking. The goal for the first two weeks was to increase my daily walks so that by my two-week visit I could walk a continuous mile without being wiped out at the end. I was prohibited from lifting any weight over ten pounds or from engaging my core in any meaningful sense. To get to my one-mile goal, I had to start with short walks around my house, work up to walks around my neighborhood, and then eventually take walks on the nearby jogging trails. I hit the mark. At my two-week follow-up appointment, my surgeon cleared me to drive and return to work. He also told me I could begin light cycling (no hills), swimming, and jogging. The morning after the appointment I went for a jog, just to see how it was going to feel. The pace was a crawl, but I did it! I was ready for phase two: to find a Triathlon. To give myself plenty of time for training I picked the Austin Tri-Rock Triathlon on Labor Day. It gave me seven months of training. Day-by-day I increased my jogging distance. My first swim I could only do four laps! I increased my swims by two laps a week at first. Speed was not an issue. Just getting myself back into the events and doing it was the goal. The payoff was huge. By summer my slow and steady training had me even stronger than I was before the surgery. I developed a more advanced training schedule and started working on speed.
On Labor Day 2016, I completed the Tri-Rock Sprint Triathlon in Austin, Texas: a 750-meter swim in Town Lake, a 27-kilometer cycling course, and a 5-kilometer run. I did it just nine months after the surgery with my one remaining kidney.
After the Triathlon I eased up my training schedule and looked to travel dreams for the year. Joi and I went to Napa over Thanksgiving and Boston (to visit my daughter) and London over Christmas and the New Year. I appreciated life every moment – a wonderful side effect of giving my brother one of my kidneys. I still get an occasional compliment about how brave I am to have donated a kidney, or how lucky my brother must be to have me. And I still feel like a scared kid who got lucky and learned what life is all about.
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.