The Mighty Logo

When I Got the Call for a Heart-Lung Transplant

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

The phone rang at 7:50 a.m. As soon as I heard the first words, I knew the man on the phone was calling to offer me organs. I eagerly confirmed I didn’t have any cold symptoms and hadn’t eaten since the night before. He told me they would have a bed ready for me at 10 a.m.

By 8:40 a.m., we were in the car. We were breathless and jittery and convinced we’d forgotten the most important item on the packing list we never finished making. The drive to the hospital was less than two hours, but it felt like traffic moved slower than ever specifically to heighten my unresolved panic. I was excited, impatient and afraid.

My heart had not stopped pounding since the phone rang. Normally my heart rate hung between 60-80 beats per minute, but on July 30 it was consistently between 100-130 beats per minute.

Once admitted, I leaned back in the bed that would transport me to the operating room 10 hours later. I closed my eyes, breathed steadily and relaxed. But still, the screen read 122 beats per minute. My heart couldn’t ignore the adrenaline pulsing through me — however much I tried to trick myself into staying calm. Somehow it knew this was our last hurrah: My heart was giving me every bit of strength it had left.

I have a such a deep level of respect for the organs that kept me alive for 23 years, which is part of why this experience has been wrought with grief. Don’t get me wrong — I have railed against my tangled heart and poor excuses for lungs enough times to exhaust my most understanding confidantes.

It appeared to me the entire world had great lungs they squandered at my expense. I noticed cigarette smoke more frequently when temperatures dropped. Cold air irritated my tight airways, making it harder to breathe and often triggering asthma. I would shed hot, angry tears as I gulped frigid smoke on my way to class, huffing and puffing up the unrelenting Berkeley hills. No matter how hard I tried to find some divine purpose for my illness, it was impossible for me to reconcile the injustice. My bitterness made me feel alone on a campus of 35,000 — and all the more bonded to my deteriorating insides.

I waited in room B201 for 10 hours. More and more friends arrived throughout the day; it was a festive occasion. We played card games, listened to music, drew henna tattoos on each other and laughed a lot. The anticipation electrified us all.

Amidst all the excitement, my donor was constantly on my mind. I knew that the hours I spent waiting were some of the worst hours in the lives of my donor’s loved ones. I smiled and celebrated new hope gifted to me by a stranger whose friends and family were simultaneously learning of a loss that will bring grief into their lives forever.

I am intent on making use of that generous stranger’s most vital organs. I may never learn who my donor was. Even if I never meet their family, I know we navigate the same waters. My ship has been rocked by grief more times in my 23 years than in some lifetimes. I know how a rediscovered handwriting sample can take your breath away and how a number on the calendar can spoil an entire week. I know that the pain can be just as strong five years after the initial loss.

I will be forever indebted to my donor and their family for choosing to be selfless in a moment of intense grief. Every breath I take for the rest of my life is only possible because of their gift. My hope is that someday I can share some fragment of the joy that gift has brought me with the wave-beaten voyagers my donor left behind.

I solicited my friends to witness the advance directive I filled out as I waited, and I forwarded my mom the informal list of final wishes I had written as a junior in college. It included important things like what kinds of trees to plant in my honor, instructions for how long to keep my Facebook profile active and various demands for the party that will be thrown in lieu of a funeral.

Waiting outside the doors to the operating room with just my parents, I apologized for some of the more outdated references. In the two years since I started planning this, much like my peers do for their wedding days, my prized possessions have changed and friendships have evolved, along with my social media passwords. During what could have been our final moments together, my mom and I talked animatedly about where to direct donations in the event of my death. Organizing like this is one of our practiced coping mechanisms. Our theory is that once we do everything that needs doing, we can return to a state of denial and escape our worries. I’m not going to pretend it’s incredibly healthy, but it works for us.

I waited hours in the glacial operating room, watching as nurses, their backs turned to me, carefully arranged metallic-sounding instruments. Behind me, my gentle anesthesiologist tended to his assigned tasks, starting up conversations with me from time to time. He let me choose the Pandora station. After a few seconds of intense deliberation, I settled on Blind Pilot and was pleased that the only complaints coming from our small group were about his lack of a paid subscription and not my selection. The idea that this might be the last playlist I listened to added a whole new level of pressure to a decision I normally left up to more musically literate friends.

I asked for a pen and paper because drawing had lowered my heart rate while I waited upstairs. I’d had enough of staring at the machine that would be trusted to keep me alive long enough for my surgeon to scrape out my chest cavity and sew in a new heart and set of lungs left behind just for me. I began rapidly sketching the scene, channeling my focus to record the details on a page that would be taken from me without warning.

With useless worries welling up around me, I sought images of strength and wisdom. They appeared in my agnostic mind like deceased wizards from a connection of simultaneously cast spells. My silly grin went unnoticed as I convened with my wise, witty and spirited guardian angels. I sensed their presence and allowed their voices to echo through my head.

The clock to my left read that it was time to start the infusion that would rob me of all awareness of the interventions done to my body. I knew I would have no memory of the hours that would pass slowly for my family and friends. I felt lucky to be the patient and have nothing left to do. Trusting my body to fight for me without the help of my mind, I embraced unconsciousness with confidence.

Originally published: November 11, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home