Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily.
I wondered who was calling me from the (306) area code. Where was that anyway?
“It’s mrghhtbfxr,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
“Who?” I asked.
“mrghhtbfxr!” repeated the voice excitedly.
It’s River! I’ve found a kidney!” Kitsap River is a Daily Kos blogger. I had been trying to give her a kidney.
I was so happy for River. But I was also so happy for me!
After a year of tests, I had just been confirmed as a match. I was mustering my courage for a SERIOUS TALK with the husband and kids.
Saved by the bell! Now I could keep my kidney without feeling guilty.
It began innocently enough. I invited River to post a diary for the Thursday Night Health Care series. I hoped we would find a donor. When no one emerged, i thought, “What about me?”
I read an online article written by a woman seeking a donor. She’d been deeply disappointed when her donor failed to board the plane without explanation the weekend scheduled for the transplant. She was heartbroken.
I took little steps, no guilt necessary. I contacted the transplant center at the University of Washington. They forwarded me a stack of forms to fill out, including a proof of blood type and a sheet for recording blood pressures for three consecutive weeks.
They seemed innocuous. Little did I know…these forms were…
The proof of blood type required at least six unproductive trips to the hospital vital records room. It turned out (after countless phone calls to my personal physicians) that nobody has recorded by my blood type since my son’s birth fourteen years ago. The hospital was storing his birth record in an undisclosed location.
After much pounding of linoleum, a nice lady hidden deep within a basement catacomb located it for me. Whew!
That night I talked with my family. No blood had yet been drawn and I did not feel guilty. They approved of my idea in its conceptual stages.
Next step: blood pressure. This oughta be easy, right???
I couldn’t find a doctor willing to take my blood pressure without logging it as an office visit which would then be rejected by my insurance. Six or seven rejected office visits could get expensive.
Every time I drove over to the public health office to get a free blood pressure reading (which incidentally required at least two hours off of work) my blood pressure turned out to be high. I have never had high blood pressure. I made an appointment with my physician to find out if I was developing hypertension (another half day away from work). Nope. A good friend at the public health office launched an internal investigation into the fitness of their cuffs. As a taxpayer, I was gratified. But I still didn’t have my blood pressure readings. Finally a colleague at El Centro Family Health asked one of their nurses to do it. So after about six or seven mornings of arriving late to work, my sheet was filled out.
Now it was time for serious testing. A morning without breakfast. A trip to the hospital. A nice glass of glucose and a gift of twenty vials of blood. As soon as I saw how much blood was drawn, I felt guilty: a hopeless onus-knot of competing obligations. I needed to figure out how to broach the topic of the day’s bloodletting with Richard and the kids. I should talk to someone about my mysterious absences from work. Plus, there was River. She really needed a kidney. How would she feel if I didn’t get on the plane?
The technician handed me two large jugs. “Fill these up with urine and then bring them back.”
“What??!” I exclaimed. “I am NOT bringing those things to my office!”
“You can take them home and fill them up over the weekend,” he suggested kindly. Bring ‘em back on Monday. Then, as an afterthought he added, “We didn’t have the right color plugs for the vials so the transplant center is going to think we performed the wrong tests. Be sure to tell them we did the right tests. It’s just that the plugs were pink instead of white.”
Pink, Not White
He gave me a thumbs up sign. I scribbled the words “pink, not white” on the back of a gum wrapper and threw it into my purse along with other everpresent moldering debris. I grabbed my jugs and headed for the office.
“Where have you been?” asked Trudy, my receptionist, coyly.
“I’m having an affair,” I answered, and headed for my office. The plastic urinator jugs remained in my truck.
A few days later the transplant center called. “We got the results back. Unfortunately your local hospital did the wrong tests. You’ll have to get them done again. We’d prefer you drive to Albuquerque.”
“What? Albuquerque’s a two hour drive!” I remembered the gum wrapper in my purse. “Wait a minute,” I directed Kami, the nurse from the center.
“Excuse me?” she asked.
“I forgot to tell you. The technician said he didn’t have the right color caps so he put pink caps on the vials instead of white caps. But he did the correct tests.”
Kami sighed. “We can’t accept pink caps. You’ll have to get the tests redone. How soon can you get to Albuquerque?”
I lowered my voice to a loud whisper. “I can’t go to Albuquerque,” I hissed dramatically. “I’m cutting out from work so much that my secretary thinks I’m having an affair.”
“Okay,” said Kami. “Go to your local hospital. Just make sure they don’t put the wrong caps on the vials this time.”
“You mean I have to give you another twenty vials of blood? I don’t think I have that many.”
“No,” said Kami. “Only five. And you don’t have to fast or drink glucose. But we’ll need you to repeat the urinalysis. You had blood in your urine. You weren’t menstruating were you?” She gave me some instructions I won’t repeat. “Don’t go while the bill collector’s visiting,” she added helpfully.
At lunchtime, I joined my staff. “I’m going to be late for work again tomorrow,” I told them.
“Really?” asked Amber, the Director of Case Management. “Who are you having the affair with?”
I briefly considered angering the wife of an obnoxious colleague but decided the blowback might be considerable. “I’m not,” I announced. “I’m having blood drawn.”
Suddenly everyone looked concerned. “You’re not sick are you?”
I explained that I was undergoing testing to see if I could donate a kidney to River. “Wow!” exclaimed Tina. “Is River a relative?”
“No. She’s a blogger.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Tina again.
I experienced another wave of pre-emptive guilt.
Later that day I wandered down to the County annex building to find my boss. I was in luck. The County Manager and Assistant Manager were sitting at a table together without lawyers present. Actually, they are both my bosses.
“Thing 1 and Thing 2 in the same room and there’s not even a personnel hearing! This is my lucky day! I gotta talk to both of you.”
“I know where you park your vehicle,” I retorted.
I described the great kidney experiment minus the embarrassing stuff.
David and Tomas exchanged serious glances. “Are you sure that’s safe? How much work will you have to miss if you do this?” asked Tomas.
“Three to five weeks.”
David cautioned me. “That’s a lot of time,” he observed. “Maybe you should begin cross-training your staff.”
David is one of my favorite people. He looks like an elf with pointy ears, pointy eyebrows and pointy teeth. My fondness for him doesn’t make it any easier to accept directives. He’s younger than me and he used to be my employee.
I glared at him. He stared right back.
“Leave David alone,” ordered Tommy. “He’s Spock. He’s neat, logical and well-organized. I need him.”
I rerouted my glare to Tomas. “I need you, too,” he assured me. “I need you to run your department. I can’t believe you’re giving a kidney to a person you met online. I hope its safe. My kidneys are the property of my kids. You’re more generous than I am.”
I felt guilty towards my kids. How could I be giving their kidneys away? And I felt guilty because I was being praised when I hadn’t caught a plane. “I don’t know if I’m going to yet,” I answered. “I haven’t actually done anything other than give away some blood.”
“You’re thinking about it.”
“I have to go back and give some more blood. And then if I’m a potential match, I’ll have to get a kidney scan.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” he replied.
Later that night, I brought the tests up with my family. “You mean you’re actually pursuing this???” asked Richard. “Why do I get the feeling I’m the last person you’ve spoken to?”
He had a good point. Why was the most important man in my life always the last person I approached? “I thought you were okay with it,” I said, somewhat disingenuously. He had said he approved, but I knew he might change his mind.
He answered as if he could hear my thoughts. I guess you get to know one another pretty well after nearly thirty years of marriage. “You hadn’t done all those tests when I said that! I didn’t know you were going to get a bunch of blood drawn today! How come you don’t tell me anything? What happens if something goes wrong? We need you, too, you know. You matter to us!”
“Yeah, Mom,” objected my seventeen year-old daughter Chloe. “Kidneys come in matched pairs for a reason. You can’t wear two different colors like you do with socks and shoes.”
I looked down. I had put on one red shoe and one black shoe. There was a pink sock under the black shoe and a black sock under the pink shoe. Why limit myself to one color when I could enjoy two?
“Chloe’s right,” observed fourteen year-old Ben. “Kidneys aren’t socks.”
“I thought about that,” I assured them. “You know, we don’t have any history of diabetes or kidney disease in our family. And we have so many relatives that I’m sure we could find a kidney if one of you needed one.”
“What?” exclaimed Chloe. “I don’t want your kidneys. I want you!”
“Yeah,” added Ben. “Nobody makes tasty food the way you do. You can’t do that without kidneys.”
“I don’t even know if I’m a potential donor,” I answered. “I still have to do a kidney scan. If I’m not a donor, there’s no conversation to have. And anyway, I’m only trying to donate one.”
“Why are you being so stubborn about this?” asked Richard. “Most people wouldn’t even think about it.”
I pursed my lips. “Because River needs a kidney,” I said. “I sent the kids to Hebrew school for years so they could learn Torah. Saving a life is the most important mitzvah. What’s the point of talking about all this stuff if you don’t practice it?
“And I’m getting pissed off at hate-mongers and religious hypocrites. Giving somebody a kidney seems like a good way to tell them to go to hell. It makes our blogging community stronger.”
“I’d feel more comfortable with a gift of flowers,” answered Richard. “I understand your reasoning but you mean a lot to us, too. We don’t want anything to happen to you.”
A Visit from River and Charles
River called a few days after Netroots Nation. “Hi!” she greeted me. “Charles and I are up in Taos visiting Aji. We’d like to stop by and see your new building.”
She was referring to the Rio Arriba Health Commons. We had just occupied it. It housed the Rio Arriba Department of Health and Human Services (my Department), the Espanola Public Health Office and El Centro Family Health. If it had existed when I was looking for blood pressures, I wouldn’t have had to miss work.
“We can only stay a little while,” she added. We have to be back in Washington in time for a dialysis appointment. “We came to New Mexico because we want to personally thank you and Aji.”
“I’d love to see you!” I answered. I gave her directions to the Health Commons. River’s visit was both strange and exciting. She’s not someone I would encounter in socially conservative church-going northern New Mexico. River’s a proud pagan and a hippie. I feel competing bonds of obligation not just to different individuals, but to discordant social networks. Each network is a part of me. If one network rejects another, will I lose a part of myself?
River and Charles came by a few hours later. River’s skin was sallow and the whites of her eyes had turned yellow. “I was up all night throwing up,” she confessed.
I gave them a tour of the building and introduced them to my co-workers. “This is Amber,” I said. “Amber’s our Director of Case Management. River is a blogger. She and Charles live in Washington state.”
Amber took in River’s yellow skin and eyes. “I’m very happy to meet you,” she responded.
Charles and River joined me in my office. “We came because we want you to know how grateful we are that you’re willing to undergo all these tests,” said Charles. “It means so much to us!”
I felt guilt again, the tug of competing obligations. I felt guilt toward River, guilt toward my co-workers, guilt toward my family. “I haven’t done very much,” I answered. “I don’t even know if I’m a match yet. I don’t know if my family will agree.”
“We understand,” River assured me. “We feel grateful and honored you would even consider donating. It means so much to us.”
After they left, my entire staff gathered around my table. Amber, Tina, Trudy, Elena, Beatrice, Kathy and Melissa looked grave. “Who was that?” asked Amber. “Was that the woman who needs a kidney?”
I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “It was.”
“She’s really sick, isn’t she?” asked Elena.
I didn’t answer.
“Pobrecita,” someone murmured.
“We’re just worried about you,” said Amber. Then they all filed out.
I walked down to the County Annex building and knocked on David’s door. He appeared happy to see me and even skipped his obligatory opening insult.
“You’re put out with me,” he said. “I’m not trying to push you around.”
“I’m not put out with you,” I insisted.
“Lauren, I know you. You got huffy with me in Tommy’s office.
“I’m not trying to push you around. You do a great job. There are things you do nobody knows about. I want you to let someone know what they are so we can help you with them if you’re out of work. Five weeks is a long time.
“I’m not trying to discourage you. I don’t know how you do all the things you do. I don’t even know if you know how you do all the things you do. But if you really plan on being gone for five weeks, please make sure your staff can step in and take your place.”
Kami called a few days after I repeated the blood tests. “You appear to be a match,” she said. “But your kidney function might be low. Did you eat anything unusual the day before the tests?”
“Sonic,” I told her.
“Hmm… Maybe that’s it. You’ll have to do a kidney scan. They don’t have a machine at the Espanola Hospital. We can send you to St. Vincent in Santa Fe.”
So off I went.
The technician was quite nice. I took some photos and explained that I am a blogger writing about my experience donating an organ to another blogger. He made me drink a bottle of water, injected radioactive gloop into my veins and placed me inside a CAT scan for thirty minutes. The radioactive stuff burned a little bit. I watched white dots on the screen migrate to my kidneys and then to my bladder. The brighter my bladder became on the screen, the more urgently I needed to pee. Just when I thought I was going to burst, he let me up. I ran straight for the ladies room.
The next week I received a bill from St. Vincent for $2,000. After several phone calls, it was redirected to the transplant center in Washington.
Kami called a week later. She sounded annoyed. “Don’t you people have hospitals in New Mexico?” she demanded.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I like Espanola Hospital. My babies were born there.”
“That guy at St. Vincent ran the wrong test! I’m afraid you’ll have to go to UNMH in Albuquerque.”
I sighed. It could have been worse. She could have sent me to Denver.
Kidney Scan: The Sequel
Kami gave me a phone number. “Ask for Alura,” she instructed me. “I already sent her your paperwork. She’ll schedule the scan. You should have no problem.”
Alura turned out to be less than alluring.
I left multiple messages without a reply. Finally, after a week, she picked up the phone. “What?!” she demanded abruptly. I must have interrupted an important procedure like painting her fingernails.
“I want to schedule a kidney scan,” I explained. “I’m trying to donate a kidney.”
“You can’t ask me me to schedule a scan,” snapped the Aluragator. “Your doctor has to do it. What’s your doctor’s name?”
“I don’t know the name of the doctor,” I said. “I’ve been talking to a nurse named Kami. She already sent you my paperwork.”
“I don’t have your paperwork. You’ll have to ask a doctor to call.”
I called Kami. “I most certainly did send her your paperwork. I talked to her too. She’s not telling you the truth.”
I had an idea. “I have a blogging friend who is a physician in Albuquerque,” I suggested. He knows both me and River. “Maybe I can leave a plea for help in a comment thread where he’ll stumble across it.”
That night, I found Dallasdoc in a comment thread and explained the problem. “I’ll see what I can do,” he promised.
Alura called first thing the next morning. “Hi!” she exclaimed brightly. “I’m just calling to confirm the slot we discussed for 10:30 tomorrow. Are you still planning to be there?”
I was pretty sure I had not discussed an appointment time with her. “Yeah, thanks!” I agreed. “I’ll be there.”
“Don’t drink any coffee and try to sip water on your way down.” She gave me directions.
She didn’t make me drink a bottle of water. She injected something into my arm and put me into the scanner for five minutes. Then she sent me home. UNM didn’t send me a bill.
Kami called a week later. “Your kidney function is fine,” she told me. “I just need you to do one more urinalysis. We have to make sure there’s no blood in your urine.”
“I’ll go next week.”
I sent an IM to Kitsap River. The kidney scan was good, I wrote. But I need to talk to my family. They are having some doubts.
I understand, she wrote back. Thank you for doing it.
I never did. River’s phone call came before I got a chance.