I Awoke to See the Surgeon Leaning Over Me

I awoke to see the surgeon leaning over me.

“It didn’t happen,” he said. “We had to cancel.” Then he disappeared.

I was in a fog of anesthesia so I had no choice but to accept what he was telling me. My memory of where I was slowly filtered in. A nurse handed me a bottle of sore throat spray and wheeled me into another room.

My wife was there, also struggling to wake up from the drugs. We’d scheduled to have my kidney transplanted into her, and now we were learning that it wasn’t happening. At least not as we had expected.

Doctors came into the room, while the nurses finished fussing with our IVs and blankets. My parents were summoned from the waiting room.

“I’m really sorry about this,” the lead surgeon said. “We didn’t have a sufficient supply of blood from the blood bank and I didn’t feel we could go forward with the operation.”

I tried to understand the situation, and I got more than my wife did, who dozed through most of it. Thankfully, my parents were there and lucid. I could compare notes with them later.

View of Bromo Seltzer Tower from my hotel.

View of Bromo Seltzer Tower from my hotel.

“We can reschedule for tomorrow, but I won’t be able to do it,” the surgeon went on saying. My parents grumbled about this, preferring–as we all did–to have things go as planned. We weighed the merits of coming back next week with the original team, or going with a new team the next day. Finally, we settled on a plan, thinking that we were already in Baltimore, all ready to do this, we might as well get it done now.

We were discharged for 24 hours. Thankfully, we had rooms only a block away. My wife and I roused ourselves sufficiently to walk back to the hotel, although I don’t really remember the walk. My parents told us to call if we needed anything, said they’d pick up the tab for the extra night. My wife and I went back to our room to sleep off the meds.

I texted a few key people–my sister-in-law who was watching our kids, friends who could spread the word–to let them know of the delay and then climbed into bed. The day moved about us as we rested. On the sidewalks below, people walked to and from work. Guests checked in and out of their rooms. The day moved to afternoon as we slumbered, with our hospital bracelets still on our wrists and gauze patching the IV holes.

We drank water, but food was of little interest. Our last full meal had been the night before, with my parents and mother-in-law in the hotel restaurant. It was good but I didn’t enjoy it much, feeling as it did like a last supper. Now, the only thing that sounded good was a granola bar; my wife had a bag of chips. Our systems must have been in low gear from the sedatives. It saved us the trouble of ordering a meal.

The day seemed in low gear too, and I decided to step outside and get some air. My wife continued to snooze as I left the room and walked out of the hotel.

It was on the warm side of normal for an August day in Baltimore. The city was preparing for the Grand Prix car race that was scheduled for Labor Day weekend. A racecar sat on display in the hotel drop-off area.

View from the hospital.

View from the hospital.

“This is your car, right?” I joked with the bellman on duty.

“Yeah, I wish!” he said.

I walked slowly on the sunny sidewalk. People passed me going both directions. There were a mix of tourists and folks going about their weekday routines. I wondered if anyone noticed my hospital bracelet. They certainly didn’t know that a few hours before I’d been deep in anesthetic sleep waiting for my kidney to be removed, only to learn that it wasn’t.

I had a strange feeling like I’d come to meet destiny but destiny was a no-show. What was I supposed to do now?

Of course, I knew that the whole thing would begin again tomorrow, but until then, there was open space.

I walked a few blocks toward Camden Yards, passing the Grand Prix barriers that were being placed along the race route. More hotels, and then the stadium was in front of me. The Orioles were not playing that day, but during summer, Baltimore is never more than a few hours away from the front end or back end of another baseball game.

Photo: Natalie Litz on Flickr

Photo: Natalie Litz on Flickr

I decided I’d gone far enough. It was time to head back to the hotel, to prepare for what still lay ahead.


This happened about a year ago, when we were in Baltimore, Maryland, to have the transplant operation, some details about which appear here.

Happy National PKD Awareness Day

I have a wristband. It’s one of those silicone rubber types, in a teal green color, and in six letters it delivers a simple message: END PKD.

When I wear my wristband, no one asks about it. It is overlooked, much like the disease it represents, a genetic disorder that is one of the four leading causes of kidney failure in the nation.

end_pkdPolycystic kidney disease, or PKD, affects millions of people worldwide. My wife suffers from it. Cysts filled her kidneys to the point where they became more than twice their normal size and began to cease functioning.

There is no cure for PKD. The outcome is always the same: sooner or later, the sufferer reaches end stage renal failure. At that point, the only options are dialysis or an organ transplant.

Last year, my wife, who is in her mid-forties, received the news that her kidneys were failing. She was put on the national organ transplant waitlist but we both knew that waiting for a donor to come forward was a long shot. The idea of spending years dependent on dialysis seemed both unpleasant and medically less than ideal. A living kidney donation, we were told, was the best alternative. But whose kidney?

In February of this year, I decided to offer myself as a potential donor. If I said it was an easy decision to make, I’d be lying, since there were many factors to consider. We do not share the same blood type and we are obviously unrelated, so I thought it might not work out. But making the offer and getting screened was a small act that felt like the right thing to do.

As it turned out, the screening showed I was a suitable match. On August 15, we had the transplant surgery. I came to believe it to be a way to move forward and do something positive for her, for our children, and for our families.

As you read this, my kidney is working in my wife in place of the ones that PKD destroyed. However, this does not end PKD for her or for the population. Much has yet to be done to understand how the disease works. Current research holds out hope that, by reducing cyst growth with appropriate medication, those with the disease can delay end stage renal failure and live with their own kidneys for as long as possible.

Today is National Polycystic Kidney Disease Awareness Day. I am wearing my wristband both as a symbol of where we’ve been and as a reminder of what we still need to do. If you see me, ask me about it. I’ll be happy to tell you what it means.

25 Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Transplant

Last year, we learned that my wife would require a kidney transplant. This did not come as a surprise, since she suffers from polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic renal disorder that affects one in every 500 people and sooner or later destroys the kidneys’ ability to function.

0817131036After some soul searching, I decided to give her one of mine. It was not an easy decision to make since there were many factors to consider, but I am at peace with it now. In fact, I’ve come to appreciate some things about a kidney transplant that I never would have thought of before.

After having read Amy Gutman’s 40 Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone, I thought I would create my own list of ways to put a positive spin on a tough situation. (She, in fact, only came up with 25, so we’re on par with that, and I think it’s plenty.) So here it is…

25 Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Transplant

1. It’s not cancer. An organ transplant is major surgery with all the attendant risks. However, it is a fairly proscribed event–especially kidney transplants–with defined boundaries and well-understood outcomes. Cancer is still the king of menacing diseases. There is so much that remains unknown about cancer, and so many ways in which it works, and the outcomes are so uncertain. It really destroys lives.

2. It’s not some mystery illness that eats away at one’s quality of life without any hope for a cure. In fact, there is very little that is mysterious about kidney transplants any more. The first one was performed successfully in 1954, and today, thousands are completed nationwide every year.

3. We only need one kidney anyway. The reason for why we have two is buried in the mists of prehistoric time. Today, in most developed countries, the second one is a redundant system we’ll probably never need. And studies have shown that the long-term health of donors is not significantly different from that of the general population.

4. A kidney has an almost plug and play quality to it. It’s a relatively simple organ that performs its job well. Once you get the right match and make the transplant, it starts to work. My wife was producing urine almost immediately, and her blood chemistry improved dramatically within days.

5. Urine never looked so good. The production of urine is a bodily function we all take for granted. But were it not to happen, we would die. My leftover kidney has taken up the task heroically, and while I have been annoyed these past few days by how often I visit the bathroom, I am also very thankful that all is well for both me and my wife.

6. Kidney transplantation is quite literally life-saving. I’ve never saved a life before. Now I have.

7. Becoming a living donor does not require that you be a blood relative to the recipient. While it can make screening easier, it by no means is an absolute rule. I am a case in point.

8. Becoming a living donor does not require that you be the same blood type as the recipient. I am Type O and my wife is Type B, so I’m what’s called a “universal donor.” But more than that, there is so much that is understood about the transplant process, and the anti-rejection drugs have become so effective, that blood type matching is less important than it used to be. Frankly, the fact that it was a living donation is more relevant to her long-term outcome than any blood type match.0816130915

9. In by 6, out by 5. We had the transplant done at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). They perform hundreds of kidney transplants a year. They are so good at it now that when surgery is scheduled, you are whisked through a process that seems almost routine.

10. When surgery is planned and well executed, recovery goes quickly. While I am still recovering at home, I left the hospital two days after my kidney was removed. My wife will spend about a week in the hospital. The healing is already happening. Which leads me to…

11. With planned surgery, we didn’t have to cancel or reschedule anything. This has been on the calendar for months and we were psyched up for it.

12. Effective pain management is a blessing. With the pain under control, I was able to get out of bed sooner than I probably would have otherwise, which the doctors told me was key to getting my normal functions back on track. Pain can also affect you psychologically, so having it controlled helped me think clearly.

13. Neither my wife nor I have experienced any adverse reactions to our medications. I’ve heard that for some donors, the pain medication makes them nauseous or woozy, which diminishes the positive effects. I had no such problem.

14. Being a living donor, people treat you like a hero.¬† I didn’t do this for personal glory, but the recognition is nice.

15. Donors at UMMC get a great hospital room. It’s more like a hotel room, with an eighth-floor view of Baltimore outside. It sounds like a small thing, but it made a big difference for my in my recovery.

16. It’s not a traumatic injury, like a car accident or a gunshot wound. It is a tightly controlled operation which means that the recovery is faster and more certain.

17. It builds community and brings out the best in people. My wife is now a part of the transplant community, and I am part of the world of living donors. It is a fellowship from which our membership can never be revoked. Furthermore, just saying that I am an organ donor brightens people’s days and inspires them to offer cheer and support.

18. You get to meet interesting people. All of my nurses were wonderful. And the surgeons and anesthesiologists were top-notch. In addition, my wife’s surgeon turns out to be a member of our religious community. What a small world!

19. Insurance covers the costs. Kidney transplants have such an established track record as an effective treatment that most medical plans cover it to some degree. Even Medicare has provisions for transplants.

20. It’s not living with an alcoholic spouse.

21. It’s not living with an autistic or chronically ill child.

22. It’s not living with abuse.

23. It’s not living with mental illness or a neurological condition.

24. I got used to wearing the hospital gown. I can see the appeal of sun dresses.

25. I’m losing my fear of needles. So many have gone in, what’s the point (pun intended)?


If you found this interesting, you can find more on this topic here and here.