This is the day when Americans focus on all the things for which they are grateful, as part of Thanksgiving. I am always grateful for my family, the roof over my head, the good food I eat, my access to good medical care, the availability of meaningful work, free speech, and a whole set of less important (things like my stand mixer and my iPod).
I also have one big surge of gratititude every year for the young man who died and gave my mother years of life. About a week before Thanksgiving in 2002, my mother was on dialysis, and had been approved for a kidney transplant. Her kidney had failed several years earlier, as the result of poorly controlled hypertension, and she then began years of dyalisis which involved the insertion of a shunt, and thrice weekly sessions hooked up to the giant machine that cleaned her blood. She could no longer travel, she was often exhausted, and after a long life as a dynamic and involved person she felt useless and hobbled. She was on “the list,” but could not receive a transplant unless a donor was found who was a good match. My brother and I couldn’t donate because of our family history of hypertension and diabetes, which made it inadvisable for us to give up our own kidneys.
About a week before Thanksgiving that year, the “transplant beeper” went off, letting us know that a donor kidney had been found. In the middle of the night my father, mother and I drove the 60 miles to the hospital where the surgery would be performed. We were greeted by the surgeon, my mother was wheeled off to be prepped, and my father and I settled in on hard plastic chairs for the night. Off and on during the night, I prayed for my mother, the surgeons and attendants, my father’s spirits, and the family of the donor, who we knew had been killed in an accident. The next morning we were allowed to see my mother, already more pink and less yellow than the day before. The surgeon was cautiously optimistic, and although she would miss Thanksgiving dinner at home, we would all have much to be grateful for.
We subsequently discovered that the donor had been a young man attending a local high school who had died in a motorcycle accident. As a mother, I cannot imagine the pain that the boy’s family endured then, or that they feel to this day. I imagine that this week is always as sad and difficult for them as it is joyous for my family. I hope that they know that by choosing to donate organs they gave many people the gift of years of loving their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, parents and children. There is nothing “right” about losing a child on the brink of his adult life, but if there is anything good, it is that so many lives were saved by the loving choice that his family made during a time of tremendous pain and grief.
Have you signed an organ donor card?