Taking in deep breaths of air, it seemed beyond belief that I was experiencing a vitality of life impossible to comprehend nearly six months earlier. As we rolled past palm trees and shoreline, sharing scars of donation and transplantation, I introduced Jacob to his first ride along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Two men, one organ.
I didn’t know how to respond when the nurse anesthetist asked me to lie on my back. The pain had intensified, making her request feel impossible. I doubted my ability to lie for 15 minutes, let alone four hours.
A week earlier, I received a living-donor liver transplant (July 2013). Due to several complications, a procedure was scheduled to insert a coil over my splenic vessels, reducing blood flow to my undersized and sputtering liver.
As I explained my doubts to the nurse, I sensed her accurately reading my desperation. The team could, as she explained, postpone the procedure until the following day, or they could move forward. In my mind, “tomorrow” wasn’t an option; my chips were on the table.
On The Clock
The stuffiness of the surgical drape was claustrophobic, forcing me to focus on my breathing. Since I was required to follow specific commands, the medical team rode a fine line between my consciousness and sedation.
“OK Mr. Dunn, we need you to take a deep breath, hold…good, now exhale”. With each passing second the pain in my abdomen intensified. “Ma’am, I need more medication,” I pleaded. “Mr. Dunn you have to stay awake; you must keep breathing”. Back and forth they danced, sedation and consciousness. When the procedure was finally finished, my clock started.
Four hours, on my back, go. I felt like I had limped across the finish line only to learn the course had been changed. A nurse wheeled me into the recovery room where my wife and close friends waited. They were tasked with distracting me until I hit the four-hour mark.
Minute by minute I watched the hands on the clock. I tried to break up time like an intense interval. The searing pain was causing me to hallucinate. Cartoon characters danced antagonizingly on the walls. My wife and two friends worked furiously to massage me from head to toe in a hopeless attempt to speed up time.
Back at home I tried to distance myself from those desperate moments. Two days passed like two weeks in a warzone. I expected excitement upon return but I felt dread, unable to connect or show affection to my wife or daughter.
Once my industrial strength meds wore off, the terrifying pain took root again. It consumed me. Friends and family came to visit but I was crouched on a battlefield while those I loved sat in lawn chairs.
I tried my best to pace within our house but I needed a longer leash. Making my way outside I shuffled down our street. My wife, hearing me go outside, came to guide me.
None Shall Pass
Seven years earlier she held my arm in marriage at a friend’s idyllic vineyard in the Napa Valley. Now I grasped her in desperation, walking a tightrope between life and death.
I envisioned arriving at this juncture and having a Gandalf moment–plunging my staff into the ground while fearlessly proclaiming my commitment to live. But that moment never came.
The last 13 years had been spent processing the certainty of a transplant. I had everything to live for; a devoted wife, an 11-month-old daughter, and a former student donating a piece of his liver to save my life. As much as I wanted to keep fighting, I had nothing. I welcomed death.
As the sun rose, my wife led me indoors. I sat alone, attempting to dispel the pain in my abdomen. In a flash I felt an explosion near my liver, then spreading across my chest. Looking down I saw bile pouring from my side.
Hearing me cry out, my wife rushed out of our bedroom. I needed to get to the hospital. After eight hours of additional surgery I emerged with a new portal vein grafted from a separate tissue donor who in death gave me yet another shot at life.
Even as my health improved, the emotional intensity of my experience was never far from the surface. Having lost nearly 20 pounds I looked and felt like a zombie, a shell of the athlete I once was. The prospect of riding my bike seemed too far-fetched. I only longed for one deep breath to purge the physical and emotional toll of the transplant.
While recuperating in the hospital my live-donor came to visit. Four years earlier, I was his basketball coach. Dressed in a tailored suit, I exuded control and professionalism. I now sat in a thin hospital gown, Jacob leading me, coaching with words of support. As we talked, emotion overcame me.
Riding along the Pacific Coast Highway, conversing over cycling dictums such as shaved legs and color coordination, our conversation starkly contrasted the somber tone of our earlier visits. Through Jacob’s gift, I was riding and breathing again, my life evidence of the marvel of organ donation. A friendship established on the court was now a bond of blood and tissue.
Learn more about organ and tissue donation.
Learn more about living donation.