How do you thank someone when they no longer inhabit the earth? When, if ever, will the opportunity present itself, placing you face to face with the family of the one who gave you the most precious gift one person can give another? What if that opportunity never comes? These are questions that I confess; I did not contemplate deeply during the months and years prior to my liver transplant. Now I ponder them almost daily.
Something happens to the human psyche when a doctor informs you that you are gravely ill. Initially, the mind races through the customary rollercoaster of emotions. It tries to find a place of rest with reason, explanation, and even justification. I suspect that it runs parallel to the five stages of grief when one suffers the loss of a loved one -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Our journey is as individual as our illness. It was a journey that was indeed bittersweet and it was a journey that I will forever cherish.
At age thirty-seven, after a routine physical and labs, I sat on the end of the exam table as my family doctor gently gave me the disturbing results. It was thought at first that I had cancer, but further testing ruled out cancer. By process of elimination, it was narrowed to the liver. More tests revealed moderate to severe cirrhosis brought about over a period of many years by an auto-immune disorder. My confused immune system was literally destroying the life it was designed to protect. The signs had been so subtle; they were virtually undetectable, until it was too late. I had been blaming my exhaustion on my work schedule, coupled with the activities of school, church and the home. My children were ages 9, 13 and 16.
The next two years brought steady trips to the E.R. as well as several admissions into the hospital and a special recipe of medications to enable me to function as normally as possible with a liver that was slowly dying. My health was beginning to deteriorate quickly and I was finally listed for transplant in December of ’99. I bought a cell phone, carried a pager and never left the state without consulting my doctor for nearly 18 months.
In early August of 2001, two Oklahoma families received phone calls that would forever change their lives.
On August 7, we were winding down for the evening. My industrious husband was finishing up yard work, our middle son was at the deli with friends and our daughter, then 12, was in the house with me. Our oldest son was a U.S. sailor stationed in Puerto Rico. Then, at 9:27 p.m., the phone rang! My daughter answered. The caller identified himself as being the transplant coordinator from Integris Baptist Medical Center, and in one smooth motion, she spun around with her arm outstretched, shoving the phone toward me. The look on her face shouted, “This is it!” This was the call we had been waiting for so long. In a split second, our lives were changed.
So, how do you thank someone whom you’ve never met and may never meet?
I remember the sobering moments during our two-hour trip to the hospital when suddenly, in the midst of our excitement, silence fell as we stopped to reflect upon the family who was in mourning at the very moment we were rejoicing. We prayed for comfort for that family in their loss, as well as thankfulness for their precious gift. We also prayed for my surgeon and his team, the prayer that had not ceased since the day I was listed.
Fast forward almost six years. I’ve managed to stay out of hospitals for a record three years now. A couple of rejections, one minor, one severe, set me back for a couple of years, but today I feel stronger than ever. I’ve been given the opportunity to watch my children grow and mature into beautiful, flourishing young adults and enjoy the new life my husband and I are sharing as “empty nesters”.
It is impossible to experience something like this and not come out with a new found respect and admiration for family and friends. Strength, courage and compassion are discovered in places one never imagines. You discover traits in yourself as well that you didn’t know you had. You truly will never be the same again, physically, mentally and spiritually.
So, for now, as I praise God daily for precious gift of Jesus, the sweetest name I know; I am also mindful to thank Him for the precious gift of the one whom, for the moment, still remains nameless to me. I pray also for God’s blessing of peace and strength upon his family, and I pray that one day, whether this side of heaven or not, I will stand face to face with my gift.