This past Thursday was the third anniversary of my kidney transplant and a new lease on life.
Healthy today, it’s almost hard to believe I was so close to death in July 2011. People who saw me then can’t believe at how well I’m doing. After all, they had seen me grow progressively weaker as the removal of both kidneys and years of dialysis took their toll.
Monday morning, July 25, 2011, began no differently than any other Monday. At 6 a.m. I was at the dialysis center having two huge needles inserted into the surgically enlarged vein of my left forearm. The needles allowed my blood to be pumped from my body and filtered through a dialysis unit, which removed impurities and then returned the blood to me.
But nearly seven years of dialysis with zero kidney function to assist had left me staring death in the face. I saw a walking corpse when I looked in the mirror. That morning, as I weighed in before treatment, I was a mere 118 pounds— and that was before they removed several pounds of fluid from me.
I did my best to make the 3-plus hour treatment pass quickly: I slept as much as possible.
But I didn’t sleep much this day. About an hour or so into my treatment a nurse woke me and handed me a phone. It was the Cleveland Clinic. No hurry, they said. Finish your treatment, they said. And then come on up to the Cleveland Clinic because we have a kidney for you.
I wasn’t as excited as I should have been, because by this time I took nothing for granted. Just seven months earlier I lay on a gurney in a hospital room, waiting for a transplant. I’d had 22 vials of blood taken, had an IV started, met the anesthesiologist and surgeon and was just waiting for the kidney to arrive from Indianapolis. My surgeon told me the kidney would arrive within the hour and surgery would begin almost immediately. Two hours later, I knew something was wrong. Finally the surgeon came in and practically cried as he informed me there would be no transplant; whoever removed the kidneys had cut the connecting vessels too short for them to be attached. Not only did I not get a kidney, no one did. Both kidneys had to be thrown away.
This time, though, was different. By 11 that night I was being operated on. I awoke the next morning to the news that my new kidney was already producing urine.
A month later I was home and beginning my slow recovery. It has gone well.
My strength and stamina have returned, almost to pre-dialysis levels, and my weight is up 70 pounds from the day of my surgery.
My friends are happy for me, but often they’ll ask me: What’s different now? What’s different now that you’ve had your transplant compared to how you felt before you ever went on dialysis, when you felt great? There’s got to be some downside of all this that you never mention, right?
Well, for the most part, no. First of all it’s hard to envision a downside when I weigh two facts: I am still alive, and if I hadn’t had a transplant, I would have been dead three years ago.
But there are a few differences. I haven’t fully regained my stamina. (The fact that I’m getting older and spend a good portion of the day at work sitting in a chair may have more to do with that than any actual lingering effect from the transplant.) I haven’t fully regained my strength. (Again, age and lack of exercise are just as likely, if not more so, to blame than the transplant). And I can’t eat grapefruit or pomegranate (only because it interferes with one of my anti-rejection meds).
I have little feeling in my feet, which are constantly numb because the nerves to them were partly severed when my massive, 42-pound diseased kidneys were surgically chopped apart and suctioned from my abdomen. That is something few other transplant patients would ever experience, as my kidneys were phenomenally huge.
I have scars all over my abdomen, arm, chest and neck, which occasionally can be upsetting.
I have some problems I won’t describe that are related to a painfully huge catheter that was inserted into me for almost a month.
And my biggest annoyance is that I frequently retain fluid— anywhere from a few pounds to as much as 10-15 pounds in a couple of days. Anything salty— potato chips, for example— will lead to fluid retention. Driving for more than an hour does the same thing, probably because the seat belt rubs directly against my transplanted kidney, which is located in the bend of my right front hip socket instead of where a kidney would naturally be.
Lastly, every great once in a while— maybe twice a year at most— I get phantom pains from where my kidneys used to be; the pain I used to feel when a cyst on my ravaged kidneys would burst, filling the surrounding area with blood and poisons.
It’s good to feel a reminder of that pain once in a while. It helps me keep things in perspective.
What’s a little excess water, anyway? The doc gives me pills that help get rid of it.
What’s really important is, I’m alive. Three years ago, I never dreamed I’d still be here to say that.
Life is good.