When my dad was first admitted to the hospital for kidney failure I was in Paris spending his money on overpriced espressos and baguettes.
He was bed-bound in the New York-Presbyterian intensive care unit. I was at the Louvre pretending to enjoy ancient art while thinking of Instagram captions.
Nearly two years later he was back there in a hospital bed. This time I was there, too. Not visiting but in a bed of my own around the corner.
I’d like to say I put a lot of thought into deciding to donate my kidney to my dad. But I didn’t.
It seemed like an obvious choice from the start; I had an extra and he needed one. Looking back a couple weeks after the surgery, I think I should have put more thought into it than when I loan a friend an iPhone charger.
The truth is the outcome would have been the same. I was determined to donate. It was only a matter of convincing my dad – an art I’ve fine-tuned over the last two decades.
I had a few weeks left studying abroad in London in 2016 when I discovered my dad was hospitalized with kidney failure, the cause of which is unknown. My mom didn’t initially tell me when it happened, not wanting to ruin my weekend in Paris.
I came home for the summer, went back to Binghamton University for my senior year, graduated, interned upstate the following summer – all while my dad was on dialysis.
He went to dialysis three times a week for two years at the NYU Winthrop Dialysis Center in Mineola.
Until I was back home, I didn’t understand the toll it took on him. Dialysis centers are a miserable place to be. The only sounds breaking the deafening silence are beeping machines and nurses shuffling around the floor.
He was on dialysis for two years and was on lists for a deceased donor’s kidney. The average life expectancy for a patient on dialysis is five to 10 years, though some patients live for 20 or more years, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
He visited several hospitals to be placed on their lists to increase his chances.
In September he went to the Mayo Clinic; I came along mainly to make sure he was OK – and partly to see the Mall of America.
I sat through a video seminar with my dad at the Mayo Clinic that repeatedly mentioned the benefits of a living donor over a deceased donor.
On average, a kidney from a deceased donor lasts about 10 to 15 years and a living donor kidney can last about 15 to 20 years or more.
That’s five to 10 more years of seeing the latest Marvel movies together. Five to 10 more years of family vacations. Five to 10 more years letting him embarrass me in public.
Later that day, I called to start the process of getting tested, which began with a blood test, the first of many. I got an appointment and the blood work was done right there at the Mayo Clinic.
My dad still wasn’t thrilled with the idea but humored me enough to let me get started.
A few weeks later I got a call. I was a perfect match.
Being a perfect match felt like a sign — a blessing. Even though we share half our DNA, a match within a family isn’t a given, but finding out I was a match was just the start.
Getting worked up as a donor was one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences I’ve had. In my opinion, the evaluation was more difficult than the surgery or recovery.
And they don’t give you any Percocet for surviving this part.
The transplant process is split between two teams: the donor team and the recipient team. Your doctors, nurses and social workers are all separate to help ensure that the donor is making her own decisions.
I chose to finish my tests and evaluations in one day, missing minimal time away from work. It was the Friday before Christmas; I had a friend’s birthday party that night and so I traveled around the maze of a hospital in my black skinny jeans with a tiny Sephora bag in hand.
My first stop that morning was to meet with the psychologist.
From what I’ve read now of donor stories, my experience doesn’t differ from most, but at the time I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The entire process makes you second-guess every decision you make.
I faced a flurry of questions that came out more like accusations, about my choices, motives, decisions, family, future – my age factoring into most.
I’m only 23; my brain is not fully formed to make decisions.
I’m only 23 — how would I feel if my future, hypothetical unborn child needed a kidney and I no longer had one to donate? As if everyone holds onto their organs like they save old wedding and prom dresses.
The process is also highly hypocritical.
The psychologist lays out all the reasons in the world to not donate: emotional toll, recovery time, risk of death.
Then she said, “Why doesn’t your mom, sister, aunt, uncle, neighbor, mailman, or anyone else in the world who knows your dad want to donate?”
Maybe for one of the 68 reasons you just listed.
The intent is to play devil’s advocate, so the donor really thinks about the decision and the possible outcomes. My age just gave them extra bait.
I left the meeting drained, exhausted, and with my party-perfect makeup in disarray.
I roamed the halls trying to find the rooms for the physical portion of the evaluation, including a chest X-ray, an EKG and a CAT scan.
While I cried at a reception desk, lost and confused, a friendly administrative aide helped me out. She took me to the right desk and helped me through the process.
The woman behind the desk asked if I was a donor.
“She’s an angel, that’s what they should call them,” my hero of the day replied for me.
The real joy in the donor evaluation process is you’re never done. Even when you think you are, there’s always another blood test or urine sample they’ll call you for.
For me, it was my glomerular filtration rate.
I had to go back about a month later for a full-day test that consisted of a dye put into my body and testing my blood every hour to see how fast it was filtered out.
The downside was I had to fumble my way into Washington Heights without any coffee at 8 a.m. The upside was I got to binge “The End of the F**ing World” on Netflix, so not a terrible day overall.
A few weeks later, I got a call that my glomerular filtration rate was questionable and I couldn’t donate.
At least, that’s how I heard it.
I was devastated, my dad was disappointed. Yet another hope dangled in front of him and ripped away.
What struck me the most was not a single part of me was relieved. I didn’t feel like I got out of a terrible decision — that’s when I really knew this was the only choice.
The next day, I called again. The nurse told me the nephrologist said my number was fine and I could donate.
To this day my mom is convinced it was some psychological test played on me.
I’m pretty sure it was the doctors making sure I was physically able, but either way, I knew on all fronts the answer was an overwhelming yes.
All we needed was a date. About two weeks before the initial surgery date of March 22, I got a call that a slot was available and we could do the operation.
But if donating an organ is said to be the most selfless thing you can do, why did I spend those two weeks feeling guilty in all aspects of my life?
Guilty that my sister had to take off from her residency and come home from Pittsburgh. Guilty that my colleagues had to pick up for work I was missing. Guilty that relatives were taking time off from work or would have to help with the recovery process.
The hardest part of it all was the look on my mom’s face in the weeks leading up to it.
Throughout my life my mom has looked at me with many emotions; a lot of love and pride, many times with confusion, and once or twice with disappointment.
But until this process she’s never looked at me with sympathetic, overprotective eyes; like I was a made of sand and would be blown away by a gust of wind at any moment.
I also learned to forgive her for sheltering me from details.
I forgive and thank her for not telling me initially about my dad’s illness when I was in Paris, even though I was mad at first. And I forgive her again for not telling me right away about issues he had two weeks after the surgery until he had to go back to the hospital.
I know that my mom and I are friends, and I’m lucky for that. But sometimes, even at 23, I have to let her be a mother, too.
All of the worries and cares I had throughout the process didn’t seem to matter 24 hours out.
It was the fourth snowstorm of the year, this one falling on the brink of spring. I left work early that Wednesday to meet my mom and sister and get to the city, where my dad had been since Monday getting dialysis three times to prep him for surgery.
As I walked through the spring snow to my car, I broke down and cried. I cried alone in my car all the way home.
But by Thursday morning, I had no more worries. As I went in for my preoperative appointment, I was feeling pretty calm.
That was up until the nurse told me I had to remove all my jewelry – resulting in a mental breakdown and an hour of my sister, the nurse and I all crowding around my iPhone watching videos to figure out how to remove a nose ring.
My sister managed to pull out my cartilage hoop, not without a handful of profanities thrown and more than a few drops of blood shed, but the nose ring that seemed like a good idea to get pierced two years before in Barcelona was determined to stay intact.
In an effort to calm me down, the nurse put a piece of tape over it and called the operation room to let them know in advance and that the patient said they could cut it off if they had to.
The moment finally came for the doctors, a television-worthy anesthesiologist and his sidekick to take me into the operating room.
I imagined being wheeled, but much to my surprise I walked into the room.
With my IV bag in one hand, I followed McDreamy into the room. On the way, I passed my dad, getting prepped for surgery, too, and gave him one last hug before a piece of me was placed inside of him.
“What’s your favorite cocktail,” the model doctor asked me as I scooted myself onto the table. “Because it’s about to feel like you just drank three of them.”
That’s the last thing I remember before waking up in a new room, shivering. Warm blankets were tossed on me from all directions.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mom and sister. My sister had a urine sample cup in one hand. Inside: the remnants of my nose ring.
The nurses eventually made them leave, along with my aunt and cousin who also came in to see me, so I could recover before being transferred to my room.
When it was finally time for me to be rolled to my room I got to see my dad, who now had three kidneys to my one. They told me he was doing well, too.
The first night I pointed to a spot on the left side of my lower back and asked my sister, who’s a doctor, why it hurt.
She told me that’s where my kidney was.
I had braced myself for the worst pain imaginable, but on a pain scale of one to 10, I often registered at a four and only once at a seven.
I recovered a week more at home, weaning myself off pain medications and onto Tylenol — and then off of Tylenol, too.
I continue to feel fortunate every day — fortunate I was a match, fortunate it went well for me and my dad, and fortunate to have friends and family who supported me through the process.
I would make the same decision a million times over.
My surgery was on Thursday, and I was out of the hospital by Saturday.
My dad joined me back home in Jericho two days later.
I know that this journey is not yet over, and though his life is exponentially improved, it’s not a perfect solution. There are pills, appointments and tests that he’ll live with the rest of his life.
But on that Monday night as I sat beside my dad on our couch, with my sister and mom with us watching TV, everything felt normal again.
“Where’s the remote?” my dad asked.
My sister and I shrugged.
“You lost the remote,” he said.
“I gave you my kidney,” I said, half paying attention, half scrolling through Instagram.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a trade.”