Donate Life Month – The Call

 

For the month of April, PCHA will be focusing on the theme of National Donate Life Month. In the third post of our series, Kathleen Sheffer, a heart and lung transplant recipient, shares her memory of the harrowing moments that came after the fateful call.

 

I didn’t stress about packing absolutely everything I needed because I believed it would be a dry run. Calls for transplants are never actually rehearsals, but they’re referred to as dry runs when, for whatever reason, the organs are determined unviable. Most transplant patients I knew had had at least one—one friend even entered the Operating Room (OR) before the surgeon called it off. I figured it was a rite of passage: I would go through the motions today, but I still had a long time to wait. Just 28 days on the list of transplant candidates and they had a match for me? Impossible!

 

I had imagined this phone call several times a day for the last month. After one too many heart-stopping calls from numbers with my center’s area code, I called my nurse coordinator to ask what sort of an introduction I could expect. She patiently talked me through the questions the caller would ask me and said they would make it clear immediately that this was not your standard appointment-scheduling phone call.

The phone rang at 7:50am and as soon as the first words were out of his mouth, I knew the man on the phone was calling to offer me organs. He rushed through the script, stumbling over some parts. I eagerly confirmed I did not have any cold symptoms and had not eaten since the night before. I informed him that I was a two-hour drive away from the hospital and he promised to have a bed ready for me at 10am. It went exactly the way my nurse coordinator had described it.

 

My heart was racing too fast for me to think clearly about what I wanted to bring. I shoved a few books and art supplies in a bag, grateful to my parents for handling the backup of medical supplies, so I could focus on the important things, like updating Facebook and locating the henna ink. My dad returned from work and my younger sister, Monica, was woken upstairs. Our house was filled with hurried footsteps and phone conversations. Excitement, fear, and confusion reigned. I stood trembling in my newly converted downstairs bedroom. Taking the stairs was out of the question so I dictated clothing requests to Monica, in a routine we’d cemented into the foundation of our relationship. After 21 years together as Monica, Kathleen, and Chronic Illness, it became her implied responsibility to get up and walk across the room to retrieve the scissors I wanted from the shelf two feet away from me. Three weeks later I headed up a different set of stairs to retrieve her shoes and wallet in an attempt to restructure our roles around my new health status.

By 8:40 we were in the car—breathless and jittery, each convinced we’d forgotten the most important item on the packing list we never finished making. The drive to Stanford 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 30th it was consistently between 100-130 BPM. Once admitted, I leaned back in the bed that would transport me to the OR ten hours later, closed my eyes, breathed steadily, and relaxed. Still the screen read 122 BPM. My heart could not ignore the adrenaline pulsing through me, however much I tried to trick myself into staying calm. Somehow my birth heart knew this was our last hurrah together and was giving me every bit of strength it had left.

 

The level of respect I have for the organs that kept me alive for 23 years contributed to the grief I experienced in the aftermath of my surgery. 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 that the entire world had great lungs they took for granted and that it was my fate to watch them squander them, often at my expense. I noticed other students smoking more frequently on my college campus 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 among 35,000 students—and all the more bonded to my deteriorating insides.

 

I waited in room B201 for ten 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 brought grief into their lives forever.

 

Every breath I take for the rest of my life is only possible because my donor and their family chose selflessness in intense suffering. Though I may never know them, 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. My hope is that someday I can share some fragment of the joy their gift brought me with the wave-beaten voyagers my donor left behind.

 

Soliciting friends to witness my advance directive, I forwarded my mom the informal list of final wishes I wrote in a bleak period in college. It includes 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 OR with just my parents, I apologized for some of the more outdated references. In the two years since I started planning for end-of-life, much like my peers do 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.

 

 

My experience in the OR was surreal: I waited hours, watching as nurses, their backs turned to me, carefully arranged metallic-sounding instruments. Behind me, my gentle anesthesiologist tended to his assigned tasks, initiating conversations 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 leave to more musically literate friends.

 

I asked for a pen and paper because drawing had lowered my heart rate while I waited upstairs. I sketched the scene before me, channeling my focus into the pen and away from the useless worries welling up around me. Seeking images of strength and wisdom, guardian angels 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 angels: I needed Michelle’s charming practicality, Amelia’s stubborn assuredness, and Sarah’s fiery perseverance. I could feel their presence and hear their voices. My only concern as the team started the infusion to put me to sleep was for those who waited outside the room. 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—just lie there and trust my body not to give up. My body has an impressive record of defying odds without my awareness, so I embraced unconsciousness with confidence.

 

If you would like to sign up to be an organ and tissue donor, pleae visit https://www.donatelife.net/ 

 

 

 

Kathleen Sheffer received a heart-lung transplant on July, 1, 2016 at age 23. She employs writing and photography to document her healing process and raise awareness. Born with Transposition of the Great Arteries and Idiopathic Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, Kathleen is now able to channel her drive into exercising and taking anti-rejection medications on a rigorous schedule.

It’s In Your Hands

Being a heart parent isn’t easy. That’s no news flash. You’ve run the gamut of emotions from scared, to sad, to angry, then rinse and repeat. Oh yeah, and life doesn’t stop and wait for you to get it together either. There are days where you feel like maybe you’re starting to get it together, then comes a week where you’re feeling like the worst parent in the world. Through it all you try your best to hold on, and in this whirlwind of craziness that is our life we find ourselves craving encouragement. Well, Mom and Dad: I’m here to encourage you today.

I want you to take a deep breath, let it out, and then think for a moment about your hands. Think of all the things you use your hands to do. Next look back on this past week or two and remember a time where you used your hands to do some good. Maybe you used them to calm your heart warrior after a fall and a scrape. Maybe you placed a hand on another parent’s shoulder to let them know you’re there with them in their struggle. Maybe you’re making your famous spaghetti and meatballs that your kids love. How do you feel when you think of that moment? Let yourself be filled with that feeling.

Parents, there’s something special in our hands: something that brings joy and peace and safety to others. And that – in turn – makes us better. Let’s face it, we’ve seen a lot of profane things in this world: the tubes, the monitors, the incisions, the open chest and beating heart. We experience real fears and anxieties, real trials and struggles. In the midst of these things, though, is the work of our hands…and that work is sacred.

So when you’re pumping in that last tube feed and you’re tired, or you hammering out a supportive text message to another parent, or you’re shaking the hand of a lawmaker as you advocate for heart kids, or you’re snapping a fussy toddler with a beautiful scar into a car seat, I want you to realize that it’s sacred work you’re doing, in the midst of all the profane things we face. And when you get down and you feel like it’s all for nothing, I want you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and think about what your hands have done this week. Create a special place in your mind where that feeling resides and make sure you always go back to it. Because you’ll realize that after close inspection, your hands are often busy doing very sacred work. Stay strong, parents.

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BlogHeadshotChris Perez (aka HLHS Dad) lives just outside Charlotte, NC with his wife and 3 sons – including Nolan, who was born with HLHS in 2012.  He is the author of Half Heart. Whole Life: an HLHS Dad’s Blog, where he shares his journey as a heart dad with honesty, humor, and the realization that dad’s just handle things differently. In his spare time – if such a thing exists – Chris enjoys New York Yankees baseball, playing guitar, and memes.  You can visit Chris’ blog at http://hlhsdad.com.

 

Wrapping Paper

I have never been good at surprises.  Keeping anything a secret is nearly impossible for me.  My kids have figured it out, too.  If I leave a gift wrapped present out, they quickly begin guessing and if they are even remotely close, I have to run and hide for fear of giving it away.  Just a thin sheet of paper between the unknown and a great surprise, and I am very capable of spoiling it.wrapped present

Being “in transition” with my advocacy work is a lot like holding a wrapped present – and a bit more difficult than I had expected.   For someone who likes to share (perhaps, too much?) I struggle, daily, with how much to reveal about what this transition process.

 

But, I can contain my excitement no longer…  I am so excited about a new project I am working on, with an amazing group of people.  Ah, there, I said it.

Here are a few more sketchy clues that I feel comfortable sharing at this point:

  • I am no longer working with the Adult Congenital Heart Association.
  • Yes, I will still be doing CHD advocacy – Are you kidding, I eat sleep and breathe it!
  • There will be a huge educational component, too.
  • The focus will be in the pediatric space, but there will definitely be life-long messaging.  It really is a continuous loop: to ensure that our kiddos grow up to be vibrant adults with CHD (ACHD) we need to understand the adult space in order to improve what we are doing in childhood.
  • We will all need to stand together to make this work!!!

As soon as the basic framework of the project is set in stone, trust me, I will shout it from the mountain tops.

In the meantime, find your inner child and start getting at least a little excited for what’s under the wrapping paper!