One year ago today I lay dying in the palliative care unit of a small regional hospital. I was lapsing in and out of consciousness, and my breathing had become quite shallow. Most of the time I didn’t really know what was going on around me. While I might have been able to carry on a halting conversation, a few minutes later I wouldn’t remember who I had been talking to, or what we had said.
The hallucinations were like nothing anyone had seen since the brown acid at Woodstock.
My liver had been failing for several years due to cirrhosis, which was not caused by alcohol. I was barely what could be called a social drinker. I would drink the occasional beer or glass of wine. I could nurse a shot of single malt for several hours. In fact less than 10% of the people suffering from liver disease were drug or alcohol abusers, roughly the same percentage as cancer and heart disease patients. Because of the stories of the likes of Mickey Mantle and Larry Hagman, people seem to believe that all liver disease patients are drunks or junkies.
I had been told that the only thing that could save my life was a liver transplant. The chances of getting one were so microscopic that we had no hope of that occurring. I had a rare blood type, one shared by roughly five percent of the population. I am 6’4” and the liver would have to come from someone with a similar build. Less than three percent of the population is 6’2” or over. While those two factors alone significantly reduced my chances of a liver being found in time, they were not the biggest obstacle I faced.
Eighty-five percent of the population agree with organ transplants and would gladly have one if they needed it. The majority of people think that anyone who needs a transplant should and will get one. Unfortunately that is not the case. In my area, less than twenty percent of the population has registered as an organ donor. Of those only one percent will die in such a way that their organs can be used, and many of those organs will not be suitable for transplantation.
To be a donor, a patient must be in hospital, on life support, and two independent teams of doctors must rule that the individual is either brain or cardiac dead. Every effort must have been made to save the person’s life before organ donation is even considered. If all those efforts fail, then the family will be asked about donating the organs.
Mathematically, there was no realistic hope that I would receive a transplant. My family and I were told to prepare for the end. I was given a workbook to use to write out my wishes for my funeral and what was to be done with my remains. My wife had already nixed the idea of setting up a motion detecting tape recorder in my casket so that when people looked in at me I could say things like, “Hi! Thanks for coming!” “So this is what it took to get you to visit?” or my personal favorite, “It sure is hot here… but it’s a dry heat.”
On that morning of September 18, 2013, I woke up early and watched the sun play on the dew on the leaves outside my window. As I looked at the day breaking, I thought it would be a good day to die. The usual hospital breakfast of cold eggs, cold cereal, and an English muffin that was so stale it might have been shipped by surface mail from England. The doctor from the local long-term care/hospice facility came to see me. As we were talking, the phone rang.
On the other end of the line was the coordinator for the transplant team at Vancouver General Hospital. She said that they had found a liver that was going to be available shortly that was a perfect match for me. I thought it was someone playing a joke. It took her three times to convince me that I was going to get the transplant, finally saying, “Look, Gordon. I’m hanging up now and calling for an ambulance to go out there and pick you up.”
The doctor who was there said, “Well, I guess you won’t be needing me now.”
I buzzed for a nurse, but they were all busy with other patients in the unit, most of whom were in their eighties and nineties. I started shouting “I got a liver!” hoping one of the nurses would hear me. I heard some shuffling outside my door, and looked to see a small group of geriatric patients staring in at me while I lay there shouting. “One old dear turned to another and said, “Did he say he got liver for breakfast? I sure don’t ever want liver for breakfast.”
After about twenty minutes I thought it might be a good idea if I called and told my wife what was happening. There was a chance she might like to know. (See. I told you my mind wasn't working on all cylinders, and if that wasn't reason enough, I am after all a husband, and we don't always think quite straight.) I still have a slight ringing in my right ear from the scream that came through the phone lines. Dogs in a five mile radius probably stopped what the y were doing and wondered what that noise was.
At 6:00 the next morning I was wheeled into an operating, and here I am, a year later. My bi-weekly blood tests show that my new liver is functioning perfectly. I think my donor must have been in incredible shape.
Across North America twenty people die each day waiting for a transplant. One donor can save the lives of up to eight people through heart, lung, liver, kidney and pancreas transplants. Up to 50 lives can be impacted directly through skin and cornea donations. Registering to be a donor is a simple and charitable act. If you don’t know how to do it in your area, I have placed all of the organ donation registration information for the United States and Canada on a web page at http://www.gordonkirkland.com/donor.html.
Please, for the over 150,000 people currently waiting to receive a transplant, take a few minutes out of your day, and register to be an organ donor. You sure won’t need them after you’re gone, but they could mean the difference between life or death for someone else.