(Editor’s note: This is the last in a five-part series where I recounted my battle with cirrhosis of the liver and the life changing transplant I received in September. My story is an account of how I overcame my illness, but mostly I hope to heighten awareness about the organ donor program.)
So where was I? Oh yes, I was under anesthesia on the operating table at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, receiving a liver transplant…and then I woke up.
Things are fuzzy after I became conscious and found myself in the intensive care unit, staring up at the ceiling in a dimly lit room. I’ll be honest, anesthesia is a messed up thing, especially after being under for more than eight hours. For a while after I woke up, I remember thinking I was in some secret government research lab being experimented on.
I imagined I was strapped to an exam table and the nurses were performing tests on me. I insisted I was restrained but I recall them showing me I wasn’t, it just felt like it due to the IVs connected to me.
Eventually I returned from my overactive imagination and reality set in – I was recovering from surgery. Successful surgery, as I was soon told. So successful that I had apparently had the strength to be taken off the ventilator almost immediately after surgery. One of my doctors during this time called me her “rockstar” for my quick recovery.
My memories of ICU are scarce. I spent a lot of time in and out of sleep. I remember seeing Anita, who had been there by me almost the entire time. There was my sister, Chris, and Anita’s daughter Sarah. My daughter, Lucy, also was there and she held my hand in ICU with a grip that told me she wasn’t going to let go.
It was Lucy who looked at me there and smiled, “Dad, your eyes aren’t yellow anymore.” I had white eyes again, and my skin color had gone from a jaundice color back to normal. Those were the first signs my new liver was already working.
Within 24 hours after transplant, I was out of ICU and in a private room. I stayed there a week before I was sent home, every day feeling a little stronger as I got up and started walking. After a couple days, I decided to look at my wound and found a stapled incision running from one side of my abdomen to the other. It will be a constant reminder of the surgery I will carry the rest of my life.
When I went home, it was definitely little steps every day. I started walking our culde sac daily, trying to get a half mile, then a mile and eventually I worked up to almost two miles a day. My strength returned and for the first time in a long time, I felt good.
But I was now living my ‘new normal.’ I was, in a sense, reborn on Sept. 6, 2017, and I now live by a new set of rules. I will take anti-rejection medications for the rest of my life. I have to constantly be cautious of infection. I wear a surgical mask in crowds, I frequently wash my hands and use hand sanitizer and I have to be wary of foods when I eat out.
Did I mention rules? Oh yes, there are a lot of new rules for me to follow. I can’t eat at buffets (no food left out or that has come into contact with others beyond preparation in the kitchen), leftovers are OK if they are only a day or two old, I can’t swim in lakes or pools and hot tubs that don’t belong to me, I can’t dig in the dirt or pick up pet feces, if I go fishing I can’t handle live bait and I can’t take the fish off the hook. Anything that may subject me to bacteria is off-limits.
It can, at times, be frustrating, but it is necessary with my immune system now being compromised. But I have to remind myself it could be worse, a lot worse. I consider it a minor inconvenience in the scope of things overall. Better to have to live by new rules than to not live at all.
I’m thankful for this gift and I thank my donor every day. Without this new liver I would not be around to see my daughter graduate college, or my son earn his diploma. I would not be here to see grandchildren born, or to enjoy retirement some day with Anita.
There are still so many things I want to see and do, and now I have been given a new lease on life to try and fit all those things in with the time I still have – which I hope will be many years to come.
I’ve also found I want to do what I can to give back, anything I can do to heighten awareness about organ donation. It is so simple to become a donor that it can be done online or at your local Secretary of State office. A driver’s license, state ID card, or Social Security number is not required to register as an organ donor in Michigan.
So please, if you’re not already a donor please consider taking time out of your day and sign up. Your gift can help so many others live a long and healthy life. Don’t assume you can’t donate, just take a few minutes to fill out the information needed to give the gift of life to someone in need.
Believe me, it is a gift that will be appreciated by all the lives you will touch.