Yesterday I received an email filled with good news. A former colleague of mine who’s been waiting desperately for a lung transplant was on his way to the hospital, new lungs en route as well. He’d been on the transplant list for more than a year and was seriously deteriorating, his lungs damaged from radiation treatments for cancer years before when he was a teen.

Seeing that he was finally going to get his lungs, I felt cautious optimism, relief, hope, anticipation – a smorgasbord of emotions. I repeatedly refreshed the page of updates on his family’s website eager for the latest news. The reports were good – the lungs arrived and were in good condition, he was in surgery, it was going well, etc. Finally he was in recovery, the surgery a success. He would sleep for a day or two, his family explained. The post ended with the tag, “Donor was 22 year old male who was six feet tall. Lungs fit perfectly.” My heart sank. I had been rejoicing for my friend’s successful journey through surgery, and suddenly I was mourning an unknown twenty-two-year-old. I pictured his family in sadness, wondered how the young man had died, imagined facing the decision to donate his organs.

I saw the cycle of life, the hard choices, the loss next to the gains, and from that moment on, struggled with the comments of joy celebrating my friend’s good fortune. Before the donor was mentioned, I could see the organs as a generic pair of lungs. Suddenly they became someone’s lungs. Thoughtfully, one well-wisher mentioned expressing gratitude to the donor’s family when the time was right, while another voiced sadness for the loss of the young man. My soul felt heavy.

Today I remain on my friend’s family’s website monitoring his recovery from surgery, hoping it goes smoothly, eager to see photos of him awake and smiling and breathing on his own. At the same time, a part of me hurts. I think of the other family gathered in mourning.

Last year I went to the Donate Life website to register as a donor while thinking of my friend with so much to offer, so young at twenty-nine. At 6’9” most donated lungs weren’t suitable for him and went to someone below him on the list, someone in less urgent need.

We’d worked together on a film about the war in Iraq. He fed me new facts and new clips daily. He helped me navigate the complexity of the story, thorough in his accuracy and consistently thoughtful regarding subtleties. He helped calm my frustration with the mounting footage and my distress over the stories we couldn’t fit into the piece. His focus and integrity inspired me daily.

When I first heard of his failing lungs, I lost my breath. “Not Jim,” I thought, as if somehow his life counted more than another’s. I wrote to him instantly expressing my shock and saying I hoped he would get the transplant soon. I visited his website frequently over the following months, but his posts focused on the extensive creative and political work he was doing and rarely mentioned his deteriorating health. A simple link sent readers to his family’s website detailing the transplant process. Knowing Jim, that didn’t surprise me.

For the past year, I’ve read about his struggles with insurance and hospitals, his family’s optimism and their disappointments. Over time he was forced to work from home, his mobility more and more restricted by the deterioration of his lungs. Standing in the shower eventually became almost impossible. Every update on his family’s website made me sigh, and I kept thinking, “Not Jim.”

Now Jim has his lungs. He has recovery ahead of him, but the caution attached to my optimism is receding. I picture him continuing his life and his work, and I feel relief. Our world is better with him in it. At the same time, I think of the unknown twenty-two-year-old whose family cries today.

UPDATE: Jim is breathing on his own, which raises the sweet quotient in the 'bittersweet.'


Anonymous said...

I was looking at the back of my license the other day and I'd checked off all organs in the event that my organs became available. As I looked at the checked box, I had to resist the urge to white-out my first response, somehow selfishly not wanting to admit to my own mortality.

I'm so very glad for your friend Jim and hope for his continued recovery and that he can get back to his life, which sounds very full of life.

BreathinSteven said...

Hi DeeZee and Kristen...

It is a circle of life -- and in all of the joy a recipient, their family and friends experience, sometimes it's difficult to remember there is a family out in the world who is devastated -- but that family reached out and saved the life of someone you love...

I understand both feelings... I waited for lungs for almost three years -- I had four "false alarms" before a beautiful girl from Iowa saved my life... Every time we drove to the hospital -- I thought as you did, that there was a family out there reeling in pain... But the amazing thing was that family was reaching out to help someone in need... Five families are in my prayers -- and one beautiful smile is there when I close my eyes... My donor, Kari, was 17 years old -- she was healthy as a horse, but she told her family twice in the month before she passed how strongly she felt about organ donation... I'm alive because of her.

My princess helped me build a little website in her honor -- it's at: www.ClimbingForKari.org

I hope Jim does well -- I hope his recovery and life with new lungs is as magnificent as mine has been...

Kristin -- I'm proud of you for resisiting that urge... I hope you live a long and happy life -- organs and tissue can be donated until a ripe old age -- I hope you'll let someone borrow yours when you're finished with them... Even if you make it to 90 and they can use your corneas -- can you imagine someone seeing the face of a loved one for the first time in a decade? Or, perhaps their child or grandchild for the first time ever?

Organ donation is a magical thing -- Be someone's hero... And whatever you do, tell your family and your loved ones your feeling...

I know a beautiful girl from Iowa who knew how she felt and told her family -- I think about her every single day.



thailandchani said...

There are so many sides to this.. and, as you said, it's complex. I am certainly glad Jim got a suitable donor. I like to think his donor very consciously chose to leave this behind.



Anonymous said...

I just saw an old episode of Grey's Anatomy last night that illustrated the pain and heartache on both sides of the organ donor equation.

Kudos to the family who in their moment of grief and despair thought of someone other than themselves.

Girlplustwo said...

oh, wow. yes. as i started reading it all i could think was, but from whom did those lungs come...and all that goes with.

and how we give gifts in death that are often more crucial than in life. and in that way, we carry on and on.

am so happy to hear Jim is well and doing well and breathing freshly drawn air.

Rachel said...

As a former Intensive care nurse I know the bittersweet feelings that transplanting can bring. It is tragic that someone loses their life and others receive life. I'm thrilled for your friend Jim, his new life is just beginning, free from the restraints of his disease, and like you, I feel for the family who lost someone close to them. It is so hard to get your head round I know, life moves on though, for everyone.

Emily said...

What an illustration of this cycle of life. How often do we recognize life and death so intertwined. Wonderful piece.

QT said...

That would be a tough one for me, too. I am glad your friend is doing well. Organ donation is something very difficult for me (for a multitude of reasons). One of the positives is that something good can come out of something tragic. It is indeed the cycle of life.

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