By Ken Trachy
In 1972, suffering from end-stage kidney failure, I received a kidney transplant at the University of Minnesota. This had followed two years of debilitating disease and feelings of desperation and hopelessness. After learning of my diagnosis, my father said to a friend of mine, “Kenny won’t live to see 30.”
Disconsolate, I urged the woman with whom I had shared a three-year relationship to marry me, thinking it would be preferable she be left a widow rather than a girlfriend. It was the paralyzing fear of death that was pervasive in my life, and that preoccupied all my feelings, thinking, and behavior.
The seeming inevitability of my fate was intensified for me by the experience of my sister, Joyce, who had received transplants from deceased donors in 1967 and 1968, only to die after lengthy and medically complicated hospitalizations. I remember telling a friend, as I observed my sister’s ordeal, “I’d never have a transplant. They don’t work, I’d rather die.”
The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that I received my kidney from my father, after earlier medical ineligibility had disallowed his donation to Joyce. Of course, when his kidney became available, already dependent on dialysis and experiencing debilitation, I eagerly accepted his donation and the opportunity for a transplant. My fear of death was subordinate to my hope for life.
I understand that I am extremely fortunate and exceptional; that most individuals transplanted in the early 1970’s lost their organs and received a second transplant, or died. There is a profound appreciation for my father’s gift of his organ, especially now as a father who feels an indescribable love for and commitment to his own son. And a knowledge, perversely, that the love of a parent or a sibling is often not enough for those who suffer from life-threatening organ failure. Most organs for transplantation still must come from those individuals whose families consent to donation after they die.
Almost twelve years ago, following the chronic rejection of my transplanted kidney, I received a second transplant, the kidney donated by the bereaved family of a 16-year-old woman who died in an automobile accident. I know that, once again, I am blessed. My only hope for a transplant, for health, was the beneficence and compassion of the community, of strangers. I had no compatible living donor to offer a kidney to me.
To participate in donation is to demonstrate altruism and a sense of shared community. The sickest of us depend on this generosity. It is a need, unpredictably, that each of us may have for our families and for ourselves.