Normally the holidays are a special time for everyone, with gifts and parties. Well New Years Eve 1996 was an especially good day for me. Not for what you would normally think.
On my side attached to my belt I'd been carrying a pager for almost three years, There was nothing extraordinary about it. Just about everyone was carrying them then. What was special was that this one never buzzed or uttered a sound nor vibration in almost three years. Not until that special day.
It was given to me over two and a half years ago by the Transplant coordinator at St. Louis University Hospital. I was told that when I was paged to contact her immediately because it meant a donor had been found. I would finally have a new kidney and with it another chance for a normal life.
I didn't know it but since 1982 my kidney's had been slowly dying from a trauma I had received that year. I was in the United States Air Force then and flew with the Strategic Air Command when it still existed. After the accident I recovered at a civilian facility because the Air Force didn't have the capability to help me at the base I was stationed at. Frankly, I was glad of that because military medicine was filled with it's own horror stories and I didn't want to be the subject of a future one.
Well in time I recuperated sufficiently enough that I was placed in the process of being cleared again for flight status. The Civilian Doctors I had highly reccomended that I stay on a life time treatment of steroids to prevent future kidney damage. I didn't at the time realize how important that was trusting what the flight surgeon deemed was best. But he was wrong and by not complying with the orders a chain of events were set in motion that would come to bite me in future. But in the Air Forces train of thought you can't have someone flying while there on steroids so over my treating doctors objections I was sent back to my squadron without the necessary medications. Bombs on target, that was the priority.
Years passed without incident and I separated the Air Force in 1988 and returned home to Missouri. Over the next few years a variety of symptoms arose such as migraine headaches, and high blood pressure. No one thought much of these since it seemed everyone could have those conditions. But in 1993 the symptoms progressed into much worse things. Finally someone made the correct diagnosis that my kidneys were failing and in my old medical records were found letters written by my civilian doctors that warned of the very things that were happening now.
So there it was, now I had been on a regimen of drugs and dialysis three times a week. This would last until I could find a donor. It was a painful miserable existence made all the worse by a recent divorce. Plus I had already been diagnosed Manic-Depressive putting an even bigger strain on my already strained mind.
Many times during my wait I wondered if it was worth going on living. The world seemed like it had gone mad with the Oklahoma City Bombing and the O.J.trial. I had no support group back then, it was just me and my thoughts and my thoughts were my own form of hell. Everything I had to face I did on my own. I wanted it all to stop so badly.
And that was where I was at on that New Year's Eve Day. I had gotten what should have been the best news in a man's life but somehow I wasn't excited, I was indifferent. It would be great to go on with life disease free and healthy. But alone and depressed? I didn't know.
That evening I checked into the hospital and was met by my nurse who went over what was to happen. She had asked me if I had any alcohol and I told her no, if the call had come a couple of hours later I might have been three sheets to the wind and possibly lost the chance for the transplant. She congratulated me on that plus the fact that I would probably be the first transplant of any kind for the year of 1996.
The evening was a blur to me as I was made to do all the unpleasant things hospitals do to you when your about to be operated on. Let's not even talk about shaving when your nickname is Sasquatch. Thankfully, I forgot all about that with the fear of going under the knife.
On the gurney ride to the operating room I felt a strange sense of elation that I couldn't explain and the lights that moved past my eyes on the ceiling gave a wonderful cadence to the events that were happening before me. Inside the cold operating room they placed the warmest blankets over me which helped me to relax. The words of the staff once distinct seemed to take on the quality of bees buzzing in a hive.
I remember saying a short prayer as the activity around me continued, I prayed that if something were to happen please God forgive me for my sins and help me to forgive those who had sinned against me. I was pretty sure I was going to make it but I wanted to cover all the bases. Like the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.
My anesthesiologist came to my side and started speaking. He had placed a mask over my face and was telling me about what he was about to do concluding with that when he told me to I was to start counting backward from 100. He gave the word and I started counting, 100, 99...98...97 and then I was gone.
Things seemed to happen instantaneously and before I knew it I was in the recovery room groggy with my eyes struggling to open and comprehend what was going on before me. I saw nurses and doctors in scrubs flitting around me talking to other patients as I struggled to just form a word in my mouth.
As I watched the room seemed to twist and twirl for a moment before it came into focus again. When it did it was the operating room again except not mine. It was a different one and instead of me being the patient I was standing among the doctors who were busy working on someone else on the table. Their work seemed labored and rushed and there was an electricity in the air that meant something very serious was happening and it wasn't going well. I tried to look at who they working on but I couldn't see past them. It never occurred to me that I shouldn't be there in the first place or the doctors didn't seem to mind my presence.
At last it seemed everything went quite and the doctors moved from the patient on the table and stood together. I remember one pulled down his mask and looked at the others he said little, shook his head no and uttered a few words that I don't remember. What stands out to me was that he was an older fellow with gray hair and blue eyes under a small pair of glasses. He appeared to have authority for he seemed to be giving instructions that everyone followed. I felt later that this doctor was instructing the rest to mark the time of death of the patient on the table. No sooner had I comprehended this scene then the room again whirled and faded away and I was transported somewhere else.
This time I was in a large bathroom of what seemed to be an apartment building. I don't know where it was but I remember a window being open and the sounds and smells of the inner city were coming in. Somewhere I was getting the impression it was on the East Coast, maybe New York. But before me in the bathroom again a scene was acting itself out. There was a man laying on the floor he was thin and muscular and olive complected. I'm Puerto Rican on my mother's side and he appeared to be Puerto Rican as well. His unconscious face was muscular and gaunt and a thin mustache grew giving him the look of a gangster from Chicago's roaring twenties era. He wore jeans and a shirt that would be called a wife beater today. Around him other men stood and leaned attempting to rouse him from the floor.
"Roberto, Roberto wake up!" One of them said, he looked a lot like the man on the floor so much so that it could have been his brother.
"He doesn't look so good." Said another. "Go and call an ambulance" he directed someone.
I knew instinctively that this was the man I saw operated on earlier. He wasn't going to survive.
With these thoughts the room again blurred and vanished and my recovery room took its place appearing as it did just before my vision. Still weak and light headed I could tell everything was still going on normally except for one thing. Next to me standing by my bed was the man who I had seen dying just moments before in my vision. He was staring at me with his arms crossed. His eyes fixed and serious. He was regarding me sizing me up wondering I believe if I was worthy of something. He looked so much in contrast to the professionals in the room.
After a moment he spoke directly and with great clarity. His speech was purely for my benefit and he wanted me to know it. He said, "I gave you that kidney, now take care of it!" and with that he vanished into thin air.
The next day a blizzard hit the Saint Louis area and I spent the next three days alone with no visitors as the city dug itself out. I didn't tell anyone of what I'd experienced. It was chiseled into my mind as if on a tombstone. There would be no way I would ever forget it.
Three days later I was discharged and on my way home I stopped by as requested to see my transplant nurse. While there I told her what I'd happened and asked if maybe I'd been hallucinating. She couldn't answer that but it wasn't impossible she said. Still she confided something to me. I wasn't the only one who had told her something like that had happened to them during a transplant. She went another step forward and told me that while she couldn't tell me about the donor she could tell me that his first name was Robert.
Some would argue that it was hallucination brought on by the anesthetic anything is possible but I don't believe it. I know what I saw and still remember it vividly. I got a kidney from a man who hoped it wouldn't be wasted. That in itself puts a big responsibility on me. I've always hoped I've done him proud I've had my moments when I've stumbled and did things he wouldn't approve of but for the most part I think he's been pleased for I've not seen him since my operation. I'm trying to do something with the time he's given me.
In relating this and other tales of my experiences I hope I'm giving hope to those who need something to believe in. Those people perhaps like yourself who can't seem to understand the world or if its worth living. Maybe you wonder if there is something on the other side. I know there is and so does he. He gave me the lesson that no life is ever wasted unless we allow it to be.
To this day I still jokingly refer to my transplanted kidney as Roberto.