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Politically Incorrect

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Heart break and heart ache

He was 17 years old. In my mind’s eye I picture him as a big, strapping boy, the kind of kid who could be the entire offensive line all by himself. He’s dark, so dark he might be Italian or Spanish or maybe even Indian. His hair is as black as night and his eyes… well, maybe his eyes are green.
 I don’t know if he looks like this, this 17-year-old boy. To tell the truth, I’m not even totally sure that he is a he and not a she. All I know is that it’s important for me that he look totally unlike my own 17-year-old, slightly built, fair-haired boy.
 A thing I do know about this boy is that something terrible happened, something unexpected, something so tragic that parents everywhere pray “not my child; not my family” in  the hope to avoid such a thing, to ward off the evil eye. I know this because early on a Tuesday morning in September, this boy’s parents made an agonizing decision—to turn off the machines that kept their child’s body alive even though his brain was dead. And then they did something more, something so enormous I can hardly comprehend it—they chose to donate his organs in the hope that others might live.
 It was around 9 am here in Idaho when all this occurred, around noon in Fort Wayne, Ind. My nephew, Charles, was wheeled into surgery. There, his chest was opened and machines took over the task of circulating his blood and filling his lungs with oxygen while his heart was removed—the same heart that grew just under my sister’s heart 28 years ago. It was a heart that no longer worked after a virus felled my nephew last September, just one year ago. Into his open chest, doctors placed the heart of that 17-year old boy.
 How many tears can one person cry and for how many reasons? 
 I want my nephew to live. I do not want my sister to go through what those unknown parents went through early this month. But I will tell you, for a time that day I mourned a 17-year-old boy I’ve never met, never knew, almost as if he were my own. I saw his face in the faces of all my son’s friends and schoolmates. Worse, I saw his face on my son’s face and I cried as if the tears might never stop.
 That’s been several weeks ago now. In the language of story-telling, in the ebb and flow of the tale, I should be writing of Charles beginning a new life with a new heart. But this is real, and in real life, the stories don’t always go where we want them to. The transplant surgery did not go well.
 Charles was on the operating table until midnight that first night. Half of his new heart could not, would not, beat. When his doctors wheeled him out of the surgery, they told my niece, “Don’t get your hopes up.” They did not expect him to live through the night.
 He’s a fighter, though, Charles is. 
 Half his body was paralyzed—whether from the new heart that wouldn’t beat, the stroke he’d had a few days before, the trauma of the surgery...no one knew. He was bleeding internally, and my niece would call with periodic reports on blood pressure and pulmonary pressure, with measurements of things I didn’t know could be measured. Charles was still hooked to a machine that pumped his blood, as he had been ever since he caught a cold that wouldn’t go away, and as he struggled back to consciousness he would reach to feel for the leads, to see, even before fully awake, whether the surgery had been a success.
 Since that time he’s had five more surgeries. One of those removed the heart pump when his new heart began to beat fully on its own. The prognosis, however, is still not good. His nurses say to hope—he has gone through so much, and come out of it better than anyone expected. His doctors say to prepare ourselves, that the trauma he’s been through is immense, and we should understand that his body may not be strong enough to deal with all its been given. As I write these words Charles is in complete renal shutdown. Brain swelling is today’s battle, and yesterday’s, and maybe tomorrow’s. 
 Recipients of a heart transplant have a 75 to 80 percent chance of surviving the first year, a 60 percent chance of surviving for five years. Those are good odds, but they point to the fact that 20 to 25 percent of all transplant recipients will not make it through that first year. We do not know in which set of percentages Charles will fall.
 Of course, we never know what the day will bring, never know on what side of the percentages we will find ourselves at any given time and really, who would want to? Besides, that’s not really the point.
 And the point is not to live every day as if it’s your last; at least, that’s not what I’ve taken out of this road my family is walking right now. We already know that’s how we should be living, and on some days we put it into practice really well. No, the point for me is that, in the words of author Stephen Donaldson, “there is yet good in the world.”
 It is easy to become overwhelmed with all that is negative in the world today. At the same time my nephew struggles to live, my friend Doris’ son Jay was badly injured in an accident with a skidder that the skidder won. My youngest older brother, Clay, is having chest pains. My mother is struggling to keep her blood pressure and her blood sugar in an acceptable range, and to somehow come up with the money to pay for her medications.
 The other way to look at it is that at the same time, Doris’ son Jay is alive. My brother Clay is alive. My mother is alive. And that is good.
 Tyler kicking the soccer ball around the yard, Dustin wearing a fuzzy blue hat and dancing with pom poms as he cheers on the team, Amy doing a perfect set… that is good.
 Charles reaching out with an arm that had been paralyzed for a week to wrap it around his mother’s neck and pull her down for a hug… that is good.
 A family, coping with the worst grief a person can be asked to bear, reaches out to people they don’t even know with the gift of their child’s life… that is good.
 The point isn’t for how long we get to experience these things that are good… the point is that we do experience them. There is good in the world. Enjoy it.I know I will.

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

transplant, organ donation, Charles Perry

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