It was the morning of a Thanksgiving past. I woke to the high-pitched beeps of my pager, and my boss, Dr. Jeffrey Veale, asked if I could go on an organ recovery. Recovery is what we call it now, though it has been termed “harvest” and “procurement” in the past. But there is no one word that can distill the meaning of removing organs from someone who has died.
What I remember about Thanksgivings as a child was awakening to the smells of food and my mom asking, “What are you thankful for?” My brother and sister seemed to come up with heartfelt answers, but I just gave the impression of being annoyed.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I threw on some scrubs, kissed my wife and promised to be at my in-laws in time for dinner. Jeff picked me up, and we headed south. “Where are we going?”
He uttered the name of the hospital.
“You know how to get there?” Jeff asked.
I didn’t answer.
“You been there?” he said, louder this time.
“I was born there.”
From the time I was 5 years old, I followed my dad, a pediatrician, into this hospital while he examined newborns in the nursery. But I suddenly felt light-years removed from the person I had been during the 33 years leading to this day.
We found the surgeons’ lounge and waited as the organ-procurement coordinator recited the details on our patient: 10-month-old girl, bathtub drowning, unsuccessful resuscitation. I couldn’t listen; her words vanished into the background of the Macy’s Day Parade on TV.
It was time, and so we made our way to the scrub sink where, through the OR window, I saw a tiny belly cresting above blue surgical drapes. I had operated on infants before, and it always felt more forbidden when compared to taking a scalpel to an adult. My hands are usually steadied by the conviction that I’m there to make a child better, but this time I couldn’t find that crutch of a thought. This baby would not be well again, frolic in a playground or have her first day at kindergarten. Her parents could never ground her for staying out too late.
I pushed through the operating-room doors. My resolve came from the individual whose life had been ruined by kidney failure and dialysis and who would now become the guardian of these tiny, perfect organs. And so I cut.
On our way back to Jeff’s car, we saw a beaming young couple in the hospital lobby, a tiny newborn in his mother’s arms. I prayed for her never to let go of that child. The last time I had walked out of this building, as a boy, I was probably holding my father’s hand. Now, I held a box labeled LEFT KIDNEY.
We headed back to UCLA, our precious cargo secure in the trunk. By now families had gathered for their holiday celebrations, and as we passed homes en route to the hospital. I imagined that classic Norman Rockwell scene inside: parents, children, relatives, a picture-perfect turkey on the table.
At UCLA, I stepped into the second cold, shiny operating room of the day — this time to give, not to take — and drew a sharp blade across the skin of a patient desperately in need of this baby’s kidney. Once it was in place, our vascular clamps were released and a young man’s blood surged through a baby girl’s kidney, turning it a vivid, unmistakably alive, rosy pink.
I made it to my in-laws’ home as everyone finished dessert. I was uncharacteristically quiet, my wife pointed out, as my family rambled on in idle conversation. As they talked, I thought about two parents who would wake up the next morning to the blackest of Black Fridays and about a patient who would arise with a brand new kidney, elated, his nightmare over. I was thankful, perhaps more than ever, for the health and good fortune of those who surrounded me.
We got home late. I almost called Mom to answer her perennial Thanksgiving question, but I was exhausted. Just as I drifted off to sleep, my pager went off again.
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