It seems like a long time since my donation six years ago. Although my friends all know about it we don’t discuss it any more. When the subject of health arises some ask how I feel (just fine) and then enquire after my friend (also just fine). It no longer comes out with strangers because I do not need to sit at parties for example, so the days of people looking shocked when they discover I have a single kidney and why are over — or so I thought.
I was invited to a dinner at a restaurant a few months ago and found myself sitting next to an empty chair until coffee. The absent guest was an eminent surgeon who had been delayed when he was called in to perform an emergency procedure. Actually the place on the other side became empty as well when the host, who had been sitting there abandoned me to speak to some friends he had discovered at another table. The next guests over were too far away for me to join their conversations so I watched my husband and everyone else chattering away and told myself I was in for a boring night. When I saw the host was deep in conversation at the other table I decided to break protocol and check my emails in order not to look lonely. That is what I was doing when the surgeon finally arrived.
The host swiftly returned and ordered dinner and the poor hungry doctor dived into his food. Although we had finished no one was in a hurry and he was asked to discuss his evening. We all marvelled as he described the complicated operation in which had saved the life of a dying man. After a time he politely turned his attention to me. We still spoke about surgery and of course eventually we got round to something I understood because of the donation. The idea that I had given a kidney seemed to forcibly strike him and he asked lots of questions. I originally thought his interest was medical but he expressed his admiration for my deed several times, sometimes interrupting himself to do so. This made me feel embarrassed so I tried to downplay it. After all, my donation took place several years ago and he had come straight from the operating theatre! Either he saw what I was thinking from my expression or he realised that I had not understood where he was coming from. So finally he put his fork down (he was still eating) and said. “I can’t get over what you have done. I think it’s extraordinary! I save lives everyday but I don’t risk my own life while I’m doing it!”
Even at the transplant unit I don’t think I thought about it from that perspective. But perhaps an American doctor would not have been so shocked either. I live in Britain and in this country donations from non family members have only recently been approved compared to the US where my operation took place. Moreover, when I tried to find a website to post a story for others considering living donation in Britain, I found precisely one non medical site interested in living donors and it did not last.
The next few days I found myself pondering this dinner where I went from “wallflower” to an encounter which reminded me a little of the euphoria in the days after my successful donation. Gratitude is important for donors in the early days when you are weak or perhaps in a little pain. I no longer need it and my relationship with my recipient was and will always be special but I must admit it was nice again to have a stranger say “well done!”