I recently celebrated my 5 year ‘transplant-iversary’! Woo hoo! And what better way than to celebrate with my family and friends in my very own home? None (although we missed a bunch of important people). Having 50+ people in my home didn’t make for the most enjoyable few days of clean up afterwards, but again…I love hosting! Just a reminder though men… when you’re a guest in someone’s home can you at least TRY to aim?!?! Much appreciated.

So, I received the ‘get-to-the-hospital-asap-we-have-lungs-for-you’ call on Monday, May 28, 2012. My husband, parents, baby and I arrived at the hospital where they had a room waiting for me. Other family members started filtering in but it was getting late. My baby had to get home to sleep (he was only 10 months old) and there’s no telling what time everything would be ready, if at all (after all, a lot of times, it’s just a dry run, meaning something happens that deems the organ not suitable for transplantation into the assigned patient) . My husband laid on the couch-turned-bed in my hospital room, right beside me, and at 5am, they came to get me: it was ‘go time’. All lights were green. They wheeled me over to the OR with my husband and parents walking, holding onto my bed and weeping (my parents had went back to our place to sleep, couldn’t stay away, returned to the hospital and sat in chairs in the waiting room all night on my floor until it was time so as to not wake me). Surgery started at around 6am and lasted almost 11 hours. For all you runners out there, now THAT’S a real marathon!

I wasn’t scared though. I was oddly peaceful. It was just like the day I delivered my son (not a scream, a wail or bitchy demand in sight). You may have assumed I was a dramatic, mess of a woman, but in stressful times and when there’s a task at hand, I’m under complete control. I’m a procrastinator to my core (yes, I perfected that method in law school) so I work BEST when I’m under pressure. Anyway…I had complete confidence in my medical team and I maintained throughout the entire process leading up to it that the surgery itself wouldn’t be my obstacle; it’s how my body responds to the new organ day in and day out that is up in the air. And that’s exactly what happened: my surgery went very well, my surgeon was happy with the results and I went home 8 days after my surgery. The post-transplant life seemed bright for a long, long time at that point. And despite all of the complications consistently trying to literally kill me, I fight like hell to be around and healthy and strong enough to be my husband’s wife and my son’s mother for a long time to come.

My apologies, I’ve kind of detoured a bit from the original intent of my post. I wanted to highlight my triumphs and happiness. But to know that my happy life came at the expense of someone else losing theirs carries this odd feeling along with it. About 6 months after my transplant I wrote to my donor’s family (it’s all done anonymously with the hospital acting as the middle man in delivery between the two parties – gotta love attorneys and their privacy laws!). About 6 months after that my donor’s mother wrote me back (coincidentally, I received the letter on my 33rd birthday – can you top that present?!). Without getting into too much detail (I don’t know if she would appreciate him or his family being identified – although I’ll be reaching out trying to find her again so I could connect with her sometime soon), I found out that he was a 27 year old man who was killed amidst the gun violence in Chicago (you may recall that Memorial Day weekend 2012 was one of the deadliest in Chicago’s history). His mother let me into his life a bit and she sent me a picture. I stared at it for days when I first got it. I still keep it in my nightstand and every once in awhile I take it out and stare at it. I shed tears when I think that his kids had to give up their father in order for my son to have his mother. What makes me worthy enough? I know the reasonable response: it was his ‘time’. He was going to pass away anyway so why not help others in the process (by the way, I was advised he donated life to 5 people with his heart, lungs, liver and 2 kidneys). But when you’re on the receiving end and life is this constant existential struggle some things just don’t make any sense, as rational as it may seem to others.

While the rest of our country mourned those who sacrificed their lives for our freedoms, my husband made a little speech at our Memorial Day BBQ celebrating my life in honor of my 5 year anniversary. I have a great support system and am eternally grateful for it. But if I didn’t have a house full of people and 72,000 lbs of food to set up, clean up and put away to distract me, I probably would have went upstairs to my bedroom and just cried. I do that every once in awhile too.

So, I guess this blog deals with my inner struggles aloud:

  • yes, I’ve endured a sh*t ton of pain and my life’s not been all peachy, but why was I so lucky as to get a second chance at life?
  • why was I only given that opportunity at the expense of someone losing theirs?

More philosophically though, since happiness, gratitude, grief and every other emotion is just a human response to a set of events how can we know what true happiness really is? Can I ever be truly happy knowing that others are feeling the exact opposite way based on the same set of facts (i.e. no ‘alternative facts’ exist)? Can you?! One’s happiness is another one’s pain. One’s grief is sheer elation to someone else. Life is just our subjective responses to the events around us. Nothing can be said to be definitively “a good thing that brings joy” because that’s subjective!

My donor’s mother wrote over and over again in her letter to me that she was so happy to hear that I was doing well. That she prayed for me, my son and my family all the time since receiving my letter. That she wants me to be well. And she’s grateful that I gave her the gift of knowing her son lives on and that he didn’t die in vain. Her raw emotion comes through her hand-written note every single time I read.

Families were mourning soldiers and brave service men and women on Memorial Day. My donor’s family was mourning the 5 year anniversary of his death. And here I was holding hands and jumping in a bouncy castle with my son and silent crying (tears welling up in my eyes). Yes, of course, with joy, thankful beyond measure to be able to do that with him. But also with guilt. Am I such a horrible person that I have this part of me that is grateful for the gun violence in Chicago?!?!?! What kind of amoral monster am I?!?! I don’t want horrible things to happen to others, but in this self-serving world that we all live in, who cares what happens to everyone else if it benefits us, right?!?! No one can be absolutely selfless because there’s always a “self-satisfaction” factor in all of our decisions. So, really, getting a new set of lungs wasn’t, objectively, a good and happy event. It was for me. But not for everyone involved. Some wish I had never received them. If I was in their shoes, I’d feel the same way.

Geeezzzzz….. that undergrad minor in philosophy really comes through sometimes, hey? Well, I’ll end with this: I give myself permission to be happy without feeling guilty for it. You should too. I also give myself permission to not be happy when others think I should be happy. We all need to remind ourselves that others may not be happy for us in the same circumstances. And that’s ok. I don’t need everyone to be happy when I’m happy. Or be upset when I’m upset. I’ve never been the type of person who needed others to validate my position (back to my ‘friends’ blog… I don’t need to be surrounded by a ton of superficial relationships where it’s obvious people are so disingenuous that they’re trying to ‘out-friend’ you). I don’t need “yes” wo/men. I accept responsibility for my own feelings because at the end of the day, every one of our decisions is governed by our emotions and our response to a set of facts. Everything is subjective. So while you might grieve, I rejoice, and vice versa. And that’s ok. You can’t tell me how I should feel. And I can’t tell you how you should feel. I need to keep reminding myself of that incessantly sometimes. I am able to celebrate my anniversary and my birthday (so sweet of you to remember! Of course I’d accept that gift!) in my own way with my own feelings about this milestone. At this point in my life, they’re both a pretty big deal so I take a step back, count my blessings, and just…..breathe.