THE call, when it came, was unexpected. You can’t spend every minute waiting for a life-changing message that might never come. But I’d been hoping it would. Of course I had.
With the quiet desperation that all prospective transplant patients have, I knew that without this call the future might be at best, limited, and at worst, well... Then it came. A “man from Hull” had died during the night, he was on the organ donation register, and I was a match for one of his kidneys.
I had been on the waiting list for a week short of a year, my renal function was down to eight per cent of normal, and I was within a sniff of having to go on dialysis. And as renal patients do – I have polycystic kidney disease – I felt rather lousy: weak, lethargic. But I knew that with this one phone call, all that could change.
Cue a mid-morning taxi dash along a rain-swept A64 from Scarborough, where I’d been staying, to the Lincoln Wing at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, which is the regional centre for kidney transplantation. And though I had often tried to imagine what this journey might be like, there were thoughts and feelings that came crowding in that I hadn’t anticipated.
Principal among them was the realisation that, not so far away, the family and friends of this “man from Hull” (you only get the barest details about the donor’s identity) would be in the early, acute stages of grief over his passing. Yet they’d taken the time to acknowledge his wish that when he had gone, others might live on; a legacy that embodied a quality you rarely expect these days: a selfless, profitless concern for one’s fellow human beings, for which this wonderful Humberside man would have received no credit while he lived.
This, the humbling generosity of a stranger, stayed with me when I reached the hospital and was descended upon by a small platoon of doctors, nurses, and other practitioners before, well, nothing much. For the next few hours the precious organ was taken from its cold box and the matching continued and blood was found, while I read a book.
Until it was time for the operation, and I was on the trolley outside the theatre, listening to the restaurant-kitchen sounds within: the tinkling of cutlery, the clatter of pans. And, like all patients awaiting major surgery, you know that all that’s required of you for the next few hours is your complete passivity, a realisation that imparts an oddly calming effect: no more fretting about what it might be like. This is it: win, draw, or lose, the dice are rolling.
Then you’re wheeled in, and the conversation with the anaesthetist is pleasant and brief, and that was my last memory, set in a kind of fixed frame, before I woke up deep into that night, feeling as if I’d been run over by a tractor, and the threshing machine it was towing.
I came round in a world of unfathomable bleeps, illuminated numbers, and at the centre of a web of tubes connected to neck, wrist, nose and bladder. I felt, it has to be said, pretty damn awful. But the realisation soon came that this process, about which I’d been thinking for several years, had now happened. The deed was done. And there came that first awareness that inside me there was part of another human being. It’s a slightly odd feeling, and it passes with time, but at that moment – and I possess no religious faith or spiritual beliefs of any kind – there’s a sense of not being entirely alone; that what’s been put inside you is a physical, blood-flowing piece of goodwill.
Given to me by the one man above all the others I’d met in my lifetime whose hand I would have liked to shake. Though, alas, that could never happen now.
As recently as the 1980s, in-patient post-renal transplant care could last up to 10 weeks, yet now, as in my case, you can be out in a week. You’re completely knackered, but home is best, with your own bugs, the food you like, and the bed you can sleep in, though full recuperation can be quite slow – up to six months. But that was three-and-a-half years ago, and in the time since I have very much recovered and been able to write a book, to travel abroad, and at the time of writing my wife and I are awaiting the arrival of our very first grandchild.
For sure, life for me is restored to pretty much how it was, a state of affairs you just can’t envisage when you’re forced onto this kind of journey. In fact, it can be so effective you have to guard against complacency. However, I shall be a very old man indeed before I forget the shining humanity of that “man from Hull,” a gentleman in every letter of the word.
• Paul Sayer is an award-winning author from York who underwent a kidney transplant in 2011. He is backing The Yorkshire Post’s Be A Hero campaign which is urging readers to sign the NHS Organ Donor Register. Sign the register at www.leedsth.nhs.uk/a-z-of-services/organ-donation/be-a-hero