It’s something very few of us actually think about. Until it happens to us.
What does the word transplant mean to you? What emotions does it evoke?
Have you ever really thought about it? What it really means? What has to happen in order to have an organ transplant?
It’s probably been 15 years or so since I first came in contact with organ donation. A coworker’s husband had had extremely serious heart problems for years, and his heart had weakened until his only chance at long term survival was receiving a new heart. He had been on a list for a new heart for quite some time, and was growing weaker by the day. We had all been hoping that a heart would come in time to save his life.
And it did.
But it didn’t.
The heart arrived, but it arrived later than it should have. And at that point the surgeons had no choice but to begin transplant surgery and hope the new heart, which was also starting to fail, would miraculously revive itself enough to save this man’s life. Because his own heart just wouldn’t last any longer.
And three weeks later the donor’s heart, which had tried so hard to continue the life-giving miracle its previous owner and its family had wished for, gave out, and our friend’s husband passed away, never regaining consciousness after the transplant procedure.
There were no words that any of us, especially John’s widow, could say to express our thoughts, our feelings. The miracle of a second chance had failed.
Now fast forward to a few short months ago, when a coworker of my husband’s underwent a lifesaving kidney transplant. In this situation the donor was delighted to be able to give the gift of her kidney to someone who desperately needed it. Because that person who needed it was her father. As she said, she had two working kidneys, and only needed one, so she was happy to give a gift of life to one of the people who’d help give her life. And both donor and recipient are doing fine!
However, when the actual organ donation hits home, when you or a loved one faces an organ donation procedure, your mind goes in so many directions at one time that you don’t know which direction to walk in. Especially if it’s a procedure involving an organ that is only harvested due to the death of someone else.
A little over three years ago my husband was told his left eye, which had experienced countless bouts of infections for over twenty years was getting so bad that he needed a partial cornea transplant in order to save his sight in that eye. “We do them all the time,” said his doctor. “We regularly schedule the transplants once a month.” And the office routinely set him up for the procedure on the next scheduled transplant day of the month.
And suddenly, as Ben and I discussed it that night, the realization of what was actually involved in that procedure hit me like a ton of bricks.
In order for his sight to be saved, someone had to lose their life, because a cornea is not an organ you offer to donate because you have two of them. Yes, I knew that. In fact, Ben and I are both registered as organ donors, and have been for years. It’s something we both strongly believe in.
But to suddenly be in the position of an organ recipient, or should I say the wife of a recipient, I have to say that was a different matter when I actually thought about the entire procedure.
Suddenly I found myself thinking about the whole process in an entirely different way. Especially when we got a call the day before the scheduled procedure canceling it, because no cornea was available, something the doctor’s office told us almost never happened.
In reality, that meant someone hadn’t died in order to donate their eyes. We had to wait again. Until someone died.
As a Christian, how do you pray over that? You certainly don’t want to pray for someone to die. But for the majority of organ transplants, that’s what happens. Someone has to die in order for those organs to be donated, or in our case, to save someone’s sight.
It’s a sobering thought. One you don’t think about until you’re in that place. I can’t even begin to describe it.
Then we got another call a few days later. They were rescheduling the procedure because they had a cornea.
Someone had died.
And I suddenly found myself praying for the person’s family, for consolation and comfort. For them to know their loved one had contributed so greatly to the lives of others, because most likely the donor gave more than the gift of sight to my husband. Most likely the donor gave other organs as well, and I prayed those recipients would be as thankful as we were for the opportunity for a second chance.
And yes, I wondered about the donor. Who he or she had been; how old they were; what caused their death; and if their life had been everything they’d hoped it would be.
We’ll never know.
We’ve read about heart transplant recipients meeting the families of those whose heart they received, and the emotions it evokes, knowing a part of that person still lives inside someone else. That must be a wonderful experience if both families can handle it, but personally I know I couldn’t.
It’s an individual choice. Just as organ donation is an individual choice.
But it is a gift of life; a gift of a second chance. I’ll always wonder who it was who gave my husband the gift of restored sight in that eye. And both of us will always be grateful for that gift, even as we remember at what cost it was given.
Author’s note: If you are already registered as an organ donor, thank you. If not, please consider it. Visit DonateLife America for more information.