Health

Confessions of a Reluctant Organ Donor

When you get to be my age, 'friends with benefits' requires not a bedroom but an operating room

"I'm a match!" I called out excitedly to my husband, reading a group email from a friend saying that her spouse, only 56, desperately needed an organ donor. I'd long known I was O positive, a universal donor. Though eager to respond, "Mi kidney, su kidney," I instead googled—the first thing I did before taking any action, whether shopping for a toaster or preparing to recycle a body part.

The risk of me dying, I discovered, was minimal. But learning about a donor who later developed kidney disease herself scared me. Another site told about those who'd been warned that the procedure could result in their getting pneumonia or blood clots, but they ended up with other things: numbness in a leg, groin complications and chronic pain. Along with the fear of potential side effects was the realization that a family member might require a kidney and I wouldn't be able to help. I've made it to the age of 74 without that happening, but a backup kidney, like a pension plan, could be a lifesaver.

"If he doesn't get it," I said to my husband, "he'll die. But it's risky. I might end up regretting it."

"There are people you would do it for, right?" Martin asked.

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"Of course!" I answered, immediately compiling a mental list of names. Eliminating the sister-in-law who made up awful stories about me brought my total down to 23 people. I felt better about myself until I thought about the woman who'd lost 50 pounds so she could give an organ to a stranger.

The man with the diseased kidney wasn't a close friend, but I couldn't let him die. I was trying to figure out how to say that I was the right blood type and if nobody else came through, they should think of me as a last responder. Suddenly another email appeared from the wife: "An old college roommate volunteered. We are ecstatic."

I was probably almost as relieved as they were. This reminded me of a party game we used to play where someone would name a celebrity and each of us said if we would have sex with them to save that person's life. A good sport, I'd been willing to do it for pretty much everyone. Robert Redford didn't even need to be sick. That was decades ago. In recent years, the only men who'd asked me to get undressed collected a co-pay. So I was surprised by an article that appeared in the New York Times saying my body parts were again in demand. They're not, however, the same ones that used to arouse interest.

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"Over 65? Hold on to That Organ Donor Card" made the point that older people can help others by giving a kidney, pancreas, liver or heart. A woman my age may not be a magnet on dating sites, but our individual parts are still viable. "Can I have your liver?" is the new "Will you help me move?" For us, "friends with benefits" requires not a bedroom, but an operating room.

When my friend Judi called, I told her about the article. She'd been in the top 10 on my organ-worthy list. To prevent myself from backing out, I wanted to put my organs where my mouth was and tell her that she could count on me should she ever need one. "What's your blood type?" I asked.

"O positive," she said. "I'm a universal donor."

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"Me too. If you ever need a transplant, I'll be there for you," I told her.

"That isn't why I called," she laughed. "It's nice of you, but I'm holding onto my parts for my kids."

"No problem," I responded. "I owe you way more than you owe me."

"Why do you say that?" she asked.

"I stay with you every time I come to Los Angeles."

Fifteen years have passed since my friend got the kidney. It enabled him to be at his sons' weddings and become a grandfather. Seeing him, however, always reawakens my sense of guilt.

So I finally decided the best I could do was to be generous posthumously. I filled out the donor form at RegisterMe.org and made peace with the fact that I'll never receive a thank-you card.

Tags: aging
   
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