What goes into making a decision like this, to offer a vital organ to someone?
It took me a long time. When Jim first learned from the doctor that dialysis was in his future, the idea of a kidney transplant didn’t really hit me. Each time he went to the doctor to get his levels tested we were apprehensive, then relieved to hear that he was still on the positive side. But finally the doctor told him he had crossed the line, and dialysis had to begin immediately. That was in January 2006.
At first I reasoned that I couldn’t even begin to consider myself a possible donor because I’m the principal breadwinner in the family, and we couldn’t afford it. I imagined myself bedridden for months, weakened by the loss of the kidney, unable to do any work of any kind. In May of 2006 we both attended a conference in France where we met a Canadian woman who said she was willing to donate a kidney to Jim. We were touched and thrilled, and the woman began to investigate the procedure. She even made contact with the transplant people at our hospital in Amsterdam, and they approved her offer (often these kinds of distant, non-family donors are not approved). But after a while it became clear that she was too busy to actually go through with it.
At that point I began to wonder if I could give it a try. I had been doing some internet investigation and had learned that kidney donation is not as debilitating as I had thought, and I wouldn’t be out of commission for all that long.
But you have to reach a certain point when you sit down, open your mouth, and say the words, “I want to donate a kidney to you.” Recently people have told me how brave I’m being, but believe me, the bravest part of this whole process is just saying those words, getting yourself to that point where you overcome all your excuses and fears. I kept thinking of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, who finally makes the decision to carry the ring in order to destroy it in Mount Doom. He must make this decision on his own, and when he finally says, “I’ll carry the ring,” he becomes the organizing principle for the entire story. I have always believed that Tolkien was very deliberate in naming Frodo, and that his name could easily fit into the long etymological entry for the word “free” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Frodo -- one who acts out of freedom. Freedom does not mean doing whatever you feel like if it’s in your interest, because sometimes you do things that you think are in your interest only to discover later on that you did them under some kind of compulsion -- peer group pressure, fear of rejection, fear of loss. Acting under compulsion is not freedom. But acting out of love, sometimes doing something that’s downright dangerous, is what freedom truly is. (Interestingly enough, the word “free” and the word “beloved” and “friend” are related, as the OED etymology also shows.)
So I said yes. And when I did, I suddenly felt as if all the winds were blowing in the right direction, as if I had made a free decision that was somehow in line with a kind of cosmic truth. I realized that for all the months that I had been saying I couldn’t donate a kidney out of economic considerations, I had made myself responsible for a kind of self-wrought logical argument that had to be constantly reinforced with my own insistence in order to stay in place. But the yes floated freely. The yes was borne up by something beyond me and my own logical arguments.
This is not to say that the coming days will be easy or painless, or that I feel confident and fearless. I’m still very apprehensive, and when I think about the operation I feel my heart starting to beat faster and my breathing becoming shallower. But I wouldn’t go back on this decision for anything in the world.