Four years ago I read an article by a forty-nine year old psychiatrist named Sally Satel. In 2004, her kidneys were breaking down, and her article was about the experience of trying (ultimately successfully) to find a donor. Her search sounded like an awful thing to go through. In the article, three different people, one after the other, each told her that they would donate, and then weeks or months later each time, all three of them, one after the other, told her that they wouldn’t. I’d imagine that if you need a kidney, one of the horrible experience you must undergo must be to need to beg for your life (in a genteel and passive-aggressive way): telling one friend after another about your unfortunate condition while silently hoping that they’d take pity and offer to help. Surely, even the luckiest victim of kidney failure must find themselves feeling a twinge of hope at the desired words: “Maybe, I can do something;” and “I might be a match;” all the while trying to not become encouraged as the conversation is concluded with a: “Let me look into it” or “Let me see what my husband thinks.” Of course even people with a relatively easy experience finding a donor likely must have had to replay that gut-wrenching game at least a few times before achieving success. Satel’s journey was worse, after running that emotional gauntlet, she found three different people who each made a firm commitment to grant her the hoped-for kidney and then let that commitment linger for weeks or months and become firmer and firmer in her mind. Only then, after she maybe (at least the first couple of times) let herself believe that her life would be saved, three different people disappointed her. I have never had anything in my life that could possibly have led to that level of despair, and she went through it three different times. Luckily, a fourth person, a modest acquaintance from work, came through.
I remember feeling horrible for Dr. Satel, but her story is one of the happy ones. Each year, about thirty thousand Americans are added to the waiting list to receive a kidney. About six thousand of those (like the author) receive a donated kidney from a living person. After each serving about four years on the waiting list (typically on dialysis, a thrill ride where one in ten patients dies every year they’re on it), another ten thousand or so will receive a kidney from a corpse (not ideal). Another four thousand die.
When I read Sally Satel’s article four years ago, I felt like I had some ability to empathize with her story and envision what her experience must have been like; naturally I found it very moving. Nevertheless, even as I write this today, I still can’t really wrap my mind around the experience of the counterfactual Dr. Satel who isn’t able to find a donor, and I can’t really picture the agony her and her family would go through as she spiraled her way down through a painful and cramped life on dialysis to a heartbreaking ending. I’ve been very lucky in my life: I have my health, my family — I’ve never have had to deal with anything so tragic. It’s ironic but perhaps fitting, then, that the story that started me on my path to donating a kidney was one of the happiest such stories rather than one of the saddest.
A week from today, on December 6th, I’ll be in an operating room, having my kidney taken out and given to someone I’ve never met. For reasons that I hope I can explain in this series of blog posts, I’ve chosen to donate my kidney to a stranger, someone I know literally nothing about (I’ll meet them after I donate, but till then, everything’s a secret). Many things could be said about my decision, but the most obvious is that it’s a supremely weird and unusual thing to do. After all, what kind of person gives up a major organ without even being asked? Though people to whom I explain my decision always say very kind things about it, they say them in a tone you use when talking to a mental patient while you back away slowly: “That’s so nice,” “What makes you want to do that?” etc.
And I think it’s fair for them to do so: the choice is just so unusual, though not, I hope, inexplicable. In fact, I think my decision is one in which, if only it were more common, many (non-crazy) people would find real fulfillment and happiness. I wanted to use this blog in the next few weeks to talk about my experience donating and hopefully make my weird decision a bit more sensible. I wrote this first post about Sally Satel’s magazine article because to me her story was powerful. It was the first thing that started me on the path to donating, and I’m grateful that she shared it. Hopefully my story may have a similar meaning to someone else as well.