This post is a condensed version of Rebecca’s story, which can be found here.
During a routine physical exam, Rebecca and her husband, Keith, discovered that he had kidney disease. He was only twenty years old at the time. The doctors told him he’d need dialysis by the time he was forty.
But forty came and went and Keith’s kidney function held up, though it was still deteriorating. Sometime after his forty-fifth birthday, the time came for either dialysis or a kidney transplant. Rebecca started the testing process immediately to see if she was a match.
The summer of 2010 became the summer of tests for Rebecca. Though she wasn’t a correct blood match, further tests indicated that she would be able to donate to him after all.
“People wonder how easy it was to make the decision to be a donor,” writes Rebecca. “For me, it was very easy. I wanted to do it for him and for us and for our future together.”
In October of that same year, Rebecca and Keith moved into a hostel closer to the transplant center in preparation for the procedure. Keith endured multiple sessions of a process called plasmapheresis since Rebecca’s blood type was incompatible. Soon afterwards they were admitted to the hospital for their surgeries.
“I was perfectly happy to accept the risks to myself,” she writes. “I felt completely okay with the idea that I might not ever wake up because I was doing all I could do.” Thankfully, she did wake up, and by then, Keith had Rebecca’s healthy kidney functioning inside of him. The surgery had been a success.
They had to stay in the hospital a bit longer than planned due to some complications and reactions to pain medicine, but soon they were home making plans for the future. They planned to spend New Year’s Eve of 2010 at an extravagant hotel in London, eating dinner and drinking champagne on the terrace while they watched the fireworks explode over the Thames River–a sort of gift to themselves for enduring all they’d been through. Their future glowed before them. “Being together was always the best and most important thing. We had every reason to be happy and to look forward.”
Two months after the transplant, on December 15, 2010, Keith experienced shortness of breath and fainting episodes. He contacted the hospital. The person he spoke to didn’t seem to think that Keith’s symptoms were anything more than fatigue. The next morning, Rebecca discovered her husband unresponsive in the hallway. “I thought he had fainted, but when I touched him he was so cold, even though the house was warm.”
An autopsy showed that Keith died from pulmonary embolism. Rebecca had known that this was a risk of the surgery, but she thought it only happened to people who didn’t get enough exercise, and she didn’t know it could happen two months after the operation. In the wake of it, all her joy and hope turned to grief.
“I still cannot believe it happened to him. It feels unutterably cruel that he is not still here. I miss him so terribly, painfully much…In hindsight, I wish the transplant had never happened, and that Keith had been on dialysis instead. Dialysis would have been a different and more limited life, but it would still have been life. I know that is what Keith would have preferred. He deserved better.”
Rebecca’s story is hard to hear, but it is very real. For as many of us who have success stories, there are still hundreds and maybe thousands who don’t. Rebecca’s closing thoughts are, to me, some of the most powerful I’ve heard. She’d rather Keith was still alive, even if that would have meant dialysis. I’d imagine that most people who have family or friends who didn’t survive the transplant process feel the same way. It’s a big risk. The fact that thousands of people go through it per year frequently overshadows that truth, but it is a truth. Rebecca’s story is a humbling reminder of that, but it is also an encouraging reminder of the resiliency of the human spirit. Knowing the possible outcome of death, Rebecca and Keith bravely took that risk, like so many others. For them, it ended poorly. Yet Rebecca, even in her grief, endures, as does her love for her husband. While there is so much sadness in this story, I also find a glimmer of beauty in the way that love can sustain a person even through the most painful circumstances. I wish Rebecca and Keith hadn’t gone through any of this, but I am so, so grateful to Rebecca for having the courage to share this story with the world.
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