birthday checkup


I recently had a birthday, which meant it was time to get some lab tests done. My kidney function remains normal enough and there is no suggestion of diabetes. Checked my blood pressure and that’s normal too. Whoop WHOOP! Checking my numbers each year is mostly about following through on a promise to myself to be a good patient, but I will admit—a little part of me worries. I worry that my one kidney will be failing, that there will be abnormal amounts of protein in my urine, that my blood pressure will be high. I’d have to start taking an ACE inhibitor medication to lower my blood pressure and my urine protein. And—back of my fingers to my forehead, hyperventilating, feeling faint—I’d have to cut WAY down on salt.

Now none of these were worries 9 years ago when I chose to give away my left kidney to a man I wasn’t even married to. My son was 4 years old at the time. Now that’s some reckless abandon for you! I just knew all would be all right.

I remember most people I told of my plans to donate were generally supportive with two exceptions. A colleague looking at me with one eyebrow raised in are you sure and the other lowered in are you crazy, said “I would do it for my partner, but we’ve been together for several years and have a child together.”

I had been dating Robert for not quite 9 months at the time. Still, couldn’t see her point. He needed one. I had one to spare.

One of my sisters—the super-religious one—said, “Can’t somebody else do it?”

That ain’t Jesus!

No one would deter me. Not even Robert.

Weeks earlier, Robert and I were sitting in an exam room, waiting for the next member of the kidney transplant team to walk in and dash our hopes that a deceased donor kidney would be available for him soon, when I said, “We should see if I can give you a kidney.”

“No, I don’t want to do that,” he said, barely above a whisper, staring at the wall in front of him. The thought of putting my life at risk…and what if it didn’t work? Too much to bear. He would rather stay on dialysis.

So I stopped talking about it—until we had a surgery date.

April 14, 2005. Robert and I headed to UCSF hospital before day. My tummy was somersaulting with nervous excitement. Robert was subdued, like it was just another day that he couldn’t allow himself to hope in. We were ushered through the process. We signed paperwork, verified insurance, and separately talked with the anesthesiologist, before being escorted into the pre-op room to change into a pale blue hospital gown. I placed my clothes in a large yellow plastic bag and eased myself up onto the gurney, carefully holding the back of the gown in an attempt not to expose so much of my ass even though the curtains were pulled. One never knows when some stranger would be jerking one back to come in.

“OK, almost time to go. Here’s 10 milligrams of Valium,” the nurse said as she pushed the clear liquid into the IV at the crook of my left elbow.

Moments later surgery residents and students swarmed around my bed. “Are you feeling sleepy yet from the Valium?” said one, his clean-shaven beige face hovering above me.

“No, not at all,” I said, feeling wide awake.

“Really?” he said.

Vanessa. Vanessa. Suddenly I hear a woman’s voice piercing into my consciousness. Pleasant. Sing-songy. That must be who is nudging my shoulder.

“You’re all done,” she says.

I open my eyes and look at her, surprised. I am in the recovery room. Damn, I think, I didn’t even see the inside of the operating room, much less get to count backwards through the plastic face mask.

Not that I would have had a last second change of mind. But still, it was a tiny bit disconcerting to know that it wasn’t an option.

I look to my right and see Robert in the space next to me. I look for the bag collecting urine from his Foley catheter. Pale yellow urine is there. A lot of it. The kidney is working.

I smile. He is smiling back at me, finally believing a transplant was happening for him. That he could start making plans again. He started with planning our wedding.

We married 4 months later.