A transplant like lightning can happen when least expected
So there I was, cutting grass Saturday on our trusty riding mower and enjoying the sunshine, while wife Suellen was pushing a mower to do some trim work. Engines were running. When I came close to the driveway, I noticed a green pickup truck in our driveway, and my brother-in-law Bill walking briskly toward me. He was waving his hand.
Each year we take care of eight to 10 of his heifers from his dairy farm and this is the time of year when we discuss cows and fence repair. I figured that’s why he was walking toward me.
I turned off the mower and went to greet him.
He cut me short.
"Hey, Dave, the transplant center is trying to reach you. They have organs for you."
"What? Oh, wow."
I thanked him as I ran to tell Suellen, then we ducked into the house as the phone was ringing. Daughter Abigail was calling with the same news. She scolded me for not being near a phone and gave me the number to call.
When I called that number, I reached Amy Singh, my transplant coordinator at UPMC’s Thomas L. Starzl Transplantation Institute, and guess what she did.
She, too, scolded me.
"You are supposed to be sitting near a phone," she said. "We have a pancreas and kidney for you from a 51-year-old lady in Michigan who fell down steps and hit her head. How fast can get to the hospital?"
I told her 45 minutes to an hour.
Within minutes, Suellen and I had packed my medications and gathered other necessities and were driving to the hospital. Traffic was tied up at the Oakland ramp, and I threatened to walk to UPMC Presbyterian where I had to be admitted. But traffic edged into Oakland and I burst from the car and tried keeping my cool as I got my admission papers. I walked to UPMC Montefiore after refusing transport. When I reached the right floor, I was greeted happily by ladies who sent me to a waiting room while my room was prepared.
My nurse, Sean, eventually got me in the room and began preparing me for the transplant. He took 14 tubes of blood for a battery of tests. I had a chest x-ray then an EKG. They gave me a diuretic to make me pee away some of the elevated potassium in my blood, a situation caused by poor kidney function.
They also had to put me on an intravenous drip of dextrose (sugar) because I had not eaten much that day and now my sugar levels had dipped to 61 mg/dL, a below-normal level that requires quick treatment. Sean also injected me with a solution of 50 percent dextrose that elevated my blood sugar to 130, now higher than normal, at least for the moment.
I was asked a long battery of questions and underwent a physical exam. Two different doctors listened to my heart. They had to make sure I had no infections or illnesses before surgery because I soon would have been on immunosuppressant drugs to protect against organ rejection.
I beat the organs to the hospital. They didn’t arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport until about 5:30 p.m., then had to be raced to Montefiore Hospital.
Time ticked by as I awaited word of whether the organs, particularly the pancreas, were of sufficient quality to be transplanted.
Finally Dr. Abrahms came through the door with the news.
"The pancreas was too fatty. The transplants won’t take place," he said.
Soon Suellen had returned to the room and Abigail and her friend Alex came by to wish me well. I made a battery phone calls to tell everyone the disappointing, albeit understandable, news.
I went home.
I had a headache.
As it turned out, the lady organ donor was 5’3" and 116 pounds. I was sixth in line for the organ. The first on the list had an unacceptable antigen that disqualified him or her for the transplant. The second person on the list could not be reached. The person probably was cutting grass.
The next two were in their 30s -- too young to receive 51-year-old organs. The guy directly ahead of me was a big, tall fellow, so the small lady’s pancreas and kidney would not have been a good fit.
That’s how my name floated to the top.
When the pancreas was rejected, that meant the kidney went back on the list for the top candidate to receive a kidney. So the kidney would be sent back on a plane to Michigan.
The experience bolstered my confidence.
I now understand what will happen now that I’d had a practice run that brought me to the edge of undergoing anesthesia.
It also gave me confidence in the care I’ll receive at the Institute. The doctors and nurses were caring, full of information and willing to provide detailed answers. I also learned that my antibody levels are low, which should help make for a successful transplant by reducing chances of rejection.
Yesterday marked the fifth month anniversary of getting on the transplant list. The episode Saturday let me know that this transplant stuff could happen faster than I had expected.
Or as says the Samuel Hazo poem, "Waiting to act is where the drama waits."