I stepped out of the shower at 4:35 a.m., feeling a little off-kilter but convinced I was doing the right thing. But in the main part of the hotel room, Bryan was slumped on the couch, cradling his face in his hands. Something was terribly wrong. Had the hospital called?
“Baby?” I ventured.
My husband gave me a look of intense sorrow and gestured to the TV.
“A gunman opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora,” he said. “Twelve people are dead.”
The Century 16 movie theater was just 10 miles from our Denver hotel, which was near the transplant center where I was scheduled to donate a kidney to Bryan later that day. We’d been doing our best to stay positive.
News of the mass shooting knocked us sideways. We grieved for the people who’d died just because they wanted to watch the latest Batman movie. Our hearts broke for our adopted state of Colorado, forever rocked by the Columbine massacre and now this new atrocity.
I found myself fixated on the loved ones of the dead and injured. Those people were experiencing unimaginable pain. It was a pain from which I’d hoped to protect myself by giving my spouse the kidney he so desperately needed.
I’d fallen in love with Bryan as a sophomore at Syracuse University. We were both English majors who just clicked. He taught me to appreciate trees, Kurt Vonnegut, Carlos Santana, blue cheese. Our 15 years together had been filled with hiking and traveling and laughing and dancing.
We were working on our second guidebook to Hawaii when the only nephrologist on the Big Island shocked us with Bryan’s diagnosis: He had an incurable autoimmune disease called IgA nephropathy. Antibodies would attack his kidneys until they failed. Since he was only in his mid-30s, there was no question that Bry would need a kidney transplant at some point.
The waitlist for kidneys from cadavers takes years, and dialysis is time-consuming and often debilitating, like always having the flu.
“Your kidney will last longer if you find someone to give you a kidney ― and before you start dialysis,” the doctor told Bryan.
I instantly knew I would volunteer if I could. Bryan and I have different blood types, so I assumed I’d have to donate through “paired donation” or a kidney chain. But soon I learned that as a “universal donor” with O negative blood, I could give Bryan a kidney so long as I passed a battery of medical tests.
When the time came, that was the easy part. I also needed to pass a psychological evaluation.
I fidgeted in my chair as the social worker seated across from me sized me up. She continued to politely grill me. Was I being pressured or coerced into trying to donate a kidney to my husband? I’d been tested all day to see if I’d qualify as a donor ― blood draw, EKG, chest X-ray, CT scan ― but this interrogation was worse than any biological test.
She looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Do you really want to donate a kidney to him? Because if not, we’ll just say you aren’t a match.”
I met her gaze.
“Yes, I do. I really do.”
She shifted in her chair, leaning toward me. I worried that she was still unconvinced.
“When you think about being a kidney donor, what are you most afraid of?”
I almost yelled my answer.
“That I won’t be accepted as Bryan’s kidney donor!”
She broke character and laughed, and I knew I was in the clear.
“Oh, you’re definitely ready to be a kidney donor,” she said as she stood to usher me out of her office. “I’ll tell the team.”
It wasn’t an act: I was ready. There is such a feeling of helplessness when someone you love gets a scary diagnosis. I had it when my best friend from high school got breast cancer, when my dad suddenly had a seizure, when my grandpa broke his hip, when my aunt’s ovarian cancer returned. You can offer moral and logistical support, but you can’t control the outcome. I wanted to wave a magic wand and make it all better. It was a gift to finally have one.
When I got the call that I was officially approved as Bryan’s kidney donor, I cried tears of joy and relief.
Is it brave to make a decision that doesn’t scare you? Nelson Mandela said courage is “not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” I wasn’t afraid to be a kidney donor, but many friends and family members had concerns.
Their response to hearing we’d scheduled the transplant was usually: “That’s great news!” Then, with a lower voice: “Will you be OK? What will it do to you?”
I would reassure them with the facts that reassured me: that kidney donation is safer than childbirth, that kidney donors statistically live longer than the regular population, that the only restriction on my lifestyle would be no kickboxing.
“And you know how uncoordinated I am, so that’s not an issue,” I’d joke.
Mainly, I was afraid that something would go wrong ― like I’d develop high blood pressure or even catch a cold ― and I wouldn’t be able to donate. The day before our surgeries, during the pre-op testing to make sure we were still compatible for transplant, I asked my living donor coordinator how many of our six antigens matched (the more that match between donor and recipient, the greater the chance of success). For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask before.
I wasn’t prepared for her answer to be “none.” But it was. She saw the alarm flash across my face and took my hand, assuring me that everything would work out, that the odds of success were much better than if the kidney came from a cadaver.
I’m not used to keeping secrets from Bryan, but I knew no good could come of sharing such unsettling news. We were trying so hard to stay optimistic.
The night before the transplant, the outpouring of support from family and friends was incredibly helpful in that regard. My friend Ali put out snacks as the little hotel room filled up with guests. Bryan’s parents brought artwork from our nieces and nephews, and his mom gave me his late grandmother’s diamond ring, telling me how happy it had made her when we got married. My parents ordered pizza for the group as our friends Kelli and Jerry arrived to take care of our dog, Rio, for the next few days. When we got the call from the transplant center that the surgeries were confirmed, the room erupted with cheers, high-fives and hugs.
The alarm went off at 4 a.m. the next morning ― July 20, 2012 ― and I had my first jolt of fear.
My nerve endings were electrified by the thought, “Wait ― what am I about to do?” Then I panicked, “It’s too late to back out!”
But a few seconds later, Bryan gave me a hug, and my fear evaporated. Stick with the plan, just keep swimming, just keep swimming. I headed to the shower to use the antibacterial wash the hospital had given me to prep for surgery.
Then we learned about the Aurora movie theater shooting.
At some point, it dawned on me that the transplant might be canceled. Would the hospital be filled with injured people who needed emergency help? My parents and I braced for chaos as we drove to the transplant center. But the hospital was quiet ― the shooting victims were cared for elsewhere.
Bryan and I spent the day having successful surgeries. The first question I asked when I regained consciousness was, “Is Bryan OK?” His first question was, “How is Jen?”
Some of our friends have told us they found comfort that on a day shrouded by an act of hate, they knew a couple having surgeries enabled by love. I’m glad that my kidney donation gave them that, and that it gave Bryan a renewed vigor, a return to the outdoor lifestyle we both love. I remember happily telling a friend that Bryan had started mountain biking again after his successful transplant and hearing, “Aren’t you afraid of what will happen if he falls?”
And if I’m honest with myself, I am afraid ― afraid that he’ll fall and hurt his new kidney, or be too close to someone when they sneeze with his suppressed immune system, or have side effects from all the anti-rejection drugs. But I try to remind myself life is so much fuller when it’s lived without fear.
So I say “Have fun!” when Bryan goes skiing with friends, and “Sure!” when he suggests a vacation that involves an airplane ride (though we do take precautions to keep the germs at bay).
We celebrated our first “transplantiversary” with a road trip that brought us back to the Denver neighborhood where we’d lived for the transplant. We ate Mexican food at an outdoor table so Rio could join us, and watched the sunset turn the clouds deep pink. We toasted to how good our lives were a year later and grinned.
And I know without question that sharing life with someone you love but might someday lose is the bravest act of all.