Forty years ago, I witnessed my first miracle. Forty years ago, I met my first hero.

This post was originally published five years ago. I thought about updating it, but realized I could say it no better today than I had then. For those who are suffering hardship and pain there is hope. It’s my wish that you take away some measure of comfort and joy in this story. And for the rest of us, think of those who are suffering real pain in their lives.  Bless you Angie and Mike. May your journey continue to inspire us all…for at least another forty years.

 

We’re celebrating an unusual milestone in the family.  Unusual, in that it’s not a birthday, a retirement, a wedding anniversary or the final payment of the mortgage.  35 years ago this month, my older brother donated one of his kidneys to my older sister.  35 years ago I learned about bravery and unselfish acts of love.

I always remember Angie as being a little frail.  Not sickly per-se, just frail.  She seemed to get tired more quickly then the rest of us, was always a little smaller than her peers in size, beautiful nonetheless.  Little did anyone know that she had two kidneys that looked like a pair of atrophied grapes.  I look now for the definition of “Bright’s disease” and find that a lot of medical journals talk about Bright’s as a whole class of maladies related to the kidneys that can eventually lead to complete renal failure.  For Ang, it was Glomerulonephritis.  The diagnosis is final, the questions are never answered. How, why, cause?

Still young and in school at the time, I remember little about the day she was found on the floor in the family bathroom, unconscious and bleeding to death from one of the nosebleeds that used to plague her constantly.  The diagnosis was frightening and the options were few and limited.  She’d be on dialysis until a suitable donor could be found.  The initial treatment was quick and had almost immediate results after the first week, some of her energy back and her color better than it had been for years.   But fear was a shadow that covered us all and couldn’t be hidden, no matter what type of brave face we put on.  Facing death at anytime of life is hard, I’m sure it is more so when you’re a young girl just 19.  The sadness that the other 5 of us siblings felt was an immovable weight, one that we couldn’t push away, even after all the hardships we had overcome together.  Hurt one of us, you hurt us all.

The next several weeks was a series of tests and re-tests to get her into the database for an organ transplant, a list that sounded both morbid and too long to be of any value.  Not many donors in the world, especially at that time, and kidney transplants were still relatively experimental, although not new by any stretch.  One of the first places they look for suitable donors is family, immediate and distant.  With 4 brothers and a sister, there was a good chance someone would be a tissue match.  With better than 50 cousins, there would always be some sort of hope.

After we all went through the tests, it ends up with Mike being the keeper of the magic kidney.

Angie and Mike, Pre-op, posing in the dialysis room for the hospital newsletter

 

 

Mike was an un-assuming hero.  No one who ever met Mike doubted his love for his brothers, sisters and friends.  Mike taught me humility and humor, long before he gave her the gift that would allow her to live to see my children born.  Mike was always the one with the heart, never the leader, but the one who would stand in your place and take the lumps.  Off topic, but he took the belt for us more than once.

For the next year before the transplant, Angie would be on dialysis three times a week.  It was a year of bonding and building friendships with staff and fellow patients who were suffering the same fate.  They came together as a family, and they watched a few not make it, while some would receive their transplant only to have it rejected and yet, still a few walking out with a functioning kidney, instilling the rest with the hope that they too could persevere.

The odd thing about the surgery; For Angie it wasn’t minor, but it was far quicker and less painful than it was for Mike, although it had more consequence.   Her new kidney would be located in front, just below her waist, just inside the abdominal wall.  For Mike, it was an incision that to this day leaves one with the impression that someone had tried to saw him in half.  His recovery was painful and slow, probably hampered by his foolish siblings in his hospital room trying to crack him up just to see him wince.  He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

35 years with a transplanted kidney is simply amazing.  The average life span of a transplanted kidney is 12-17 years, although some medical journals are noting that recent transplants from living donors, especially relatives, can last better than 20 years.  It’s a better life than being on dialysis for sure, but the toll of the anti-rejection drugs can be heavy. To this day, Angie struggles with the ravages of the steroids and still bears the pudgy face common to transplant recipients.  That beautiful pudgy face, full of life.

 

Posing in the same room, now Angie’s office, 30 years later.

 

 

March is National Kidney month and April is Organ Donor awareness month.  There are over 100,000 people waiting for organ transplants, many of them children.  Many don’t make it and almost 20 people will die each day waiting.  I ask you to view the National Kidney Foundation, organdonor.gov and New England Organ Bank websites for more information about kidney disease and other illnesses that leave people waiting for the gift my brother Mike gave my sister.  Please register to be a donor.

We’ve celebrated birthdays, weddings, births, and graduations, everything you want to celebrate in life.   And we celebrate every day, knowing that life is fragile, that those we love can be snatched from our lives at anytime.  We celebrate the courage and the strength they both had to face it with dignity and the love of family that makes life so worth it.

Happy Anniversary Mike and Angie.  I’m keeping the kidney warm, just in case….

 

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