What does your health mean to you? Maybe it’s your body allowing you to be active so you can travel the world. It might be looking thin in your trendy clothes or having toned legs and a flat stomach. Perhaps it’s waking up without a sniffle or body aches, getting enough sleep for work, or having the energy to go bar hopping with friends.
For my brother, it means getting the chance to propose to his girlfriend of over eight years, despite his medical bills and recovery time. The ability to eat a sustainable diet without weighing protein and avoiding potassium like it’s poison, trying not to lose over 35 pounds in the process. The opportunity to walk the beach without getting winded on family vacations, to drink more than one beer without nearly collapsing.
All of these things were normal for him just months ago, before he found out he was in kidney failure from IgA nephropathy, an autoimmune disease that attacks the kidneys. Now, they’re privileges that he can barely recall.
My family, given our circumstances, is blessed. My mom, selfless and loving, was the perfect match for my brother, so he didn’t have to wait on a kidney transplant list for years before getting to live a somewhat “normal” life again. She saved him from dialysis, from years of fear and exhaustion, from his own body’s faults.
However, not everyone is that lucky. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), an average of 20 people die every day while waiting for a transplant.
Reading that statistic, you might feel a pang of sympathy before moving on with your day. But the people behind those numbers can’t just brush it off. They are forced to live the consequences: Dry heaving over the toilet all night. Waking up on the floor of a subway station in New York City while commuting home from work. Swallowing several pills morning and night just to stay alive, and dealing with their torturous side effects because they have no other choice.
These people are parents, siblings, friends, lovers, children, cousins. They are just like you, and just like those you love.
You won’t understand until it gets personal, and I don’t expect you to. Hell, I didn’t get it until I was watching my older brother, my hero, put his entire life on hold, everything he worked so hard for, to fight a relentless disease.
My brother was always the happiest person I’ve known. Even now, while gripping the bed railing in a hospital room, shivering in pain, he manages to reassure us: “Other people have it worse.”
He doesn’t deserve it – of all people, why him?
I was angry for awhile, after the numbness faded into devastation, fear, and sorrow.
I never expected this. The snow days we built igloos and went sleigh riding at the park. The summers we played manhunt with our neighbors. The family trips to Wildwood and Lavalette where I’d follow him around in awe of how cool he was. The high school breakups I mourned in his car while he listened, then treated me to dinner. The long hours he’d work overtime without a single complaint, and buy his friends a round of shots just for the hell of it. Nearly a year ago, when we moved him into the condo he purchased with his high school sweetheart. The movie nights, the Sunday drives, the hungover trips to Kettleman’s for bagels.
I never expected this. And so, I never took the time to understand the complications of organ failure – and what it can do to an entire family.
I assumed that checking myself off as a donor would put my own life at risk, that health professionals wouldn’t make as much of an effort to save me if they could use my organs to save others. I never even thought about being a living donor, for selfish reasons – wanting to have children without an issue someday, not wanting to be paralyzed with fear, not wanting to deal with the pain and side effects of a major surgery.
While these are all rational thoughts, I don’t want to let them dissuade me from donating. I’ll admit that I am terrified at the idea of ever giving as a living donor. And I’m not saying that I’m gonna commit to doing so for someone in need right now (especially because I’d like to save my kidney God forbid my brother needs it someday.) But I do know that I will, at the very least, register as an organ donor.
I understand that committing to being a donor takes a lot of emotional and physical strength, research, and preparation. But saving someone’s life, someone who doesn’t have a choice but to thrive off another person’s organ, if they’re lucky, is well worth the second thought.
I’m not implying that organ donation is for everyone. I agree that people should have a choice regarding their body and should not feel guilty for what they choose to do with it. But I do believe that the topic should be discussed more than it is.
Next time you complain about work, next time you gloat about your designer shoes and all-inclusive vacations, next time you put far too much emphasis on appearance – remember that there are people out there who spend their nights staring at the clock in tears, wondering how much longer they can gut the pain and fear.
There are parents lying awake numb at the thought of losing their child. There are lovers forced to watch their soulmate lose the light in their eyes. There are siblings mourning a childhood that didn’t know of this verdict. There are grandparents wishing they were sick instead. There are friends in other states ditching work and buying plane tickets they can’t afford.
Remember that you can do something to help. You have the power to save someone’s life, even after you’re gone someday. And if you can’t physically donate yourself, or if you feel it’s too heavy of an obligation, you can spread awareness for the cause to those who can, and to those who may be willing.
John Bunyan once said: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”
Today, instead of getting caught up in the superficiality of it all, think about what you can do for these powerless individuals. Think about what you can do for their grieving families, watching their loved one deteriorate right before their eyes.
Be the light that they need, the light that you may need yourself someday.
Give the gift of life.