When you grow up taking care of other people, it's understandable that you might put taking care of yourself last on the list.
Until, of course, you absolutely have to put yourself on the list. The kidney transplant list.
A colleague, Carla Hubbard, spoke frankly with me about this over lunch recently. I asked if she would let me interview her when I found myself standing at the strange intersection of the people I work for and the people I work with at the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Carla works in journals subscriptions and celebrated her 25th service anniversary in July this year. I have a little more than two years under my belt in the adjacent marketing department. Basically, I know Carla because she brings me customer renewal issues. Carla knows me because I hang around her department on Mondays — they bring in homemade treats after the weekend.
For almost as long as I have been at the press, Carla has come in super early in order to make her dialysis appointments. I guess I didn't think much about it — I just considered it what she had to do. With your coworkers, you don't really get into their personal lives that much; there's a necessary distance. Or there was, until a strange thing happened a few weeks ago.
I was setting up an interview with the editors of a new academic journal, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics: A Journal of Qualitative Research. Before you nod off, let me say that this is quite a fascinating new journal because it includes first-person narratives as well as substantive research on the topic being explored. A recent issue deals with living organ donation, and I thought it would be an apt one to explore in our division's video series.
I had just finalized the details when Carla strolled toward my cubicle in a way that I instinctively knew did not concern a customer renewal. There was a pulse in the air around her. I stood up immediately.
"I got a kidney!" Carla announced. I'm not entirely certain, but I think she jumped up and down a little, the way kids do when they win the stuffed poodle with the gemstone collar at the Maryland State Fair. I hugged her; something else that does not ordinarily occur with customer renewals.
Carla had received a call that she was a match for a kidney — from a living donor.
Someone she doesn't know, someone she describes as "an altruistic person." Someone with the power to remove the exhausting routine of dialysis from her daily life, as well as the ever-present feeling of being ill.
"How do you even begin to express gratitude?" she says.
Kidney dialysis is, essentially, the chance to have a fully functional kidney for three or four hours, three times a week. A normal kidney works 24/7, so dialysis is not really a long-term life plan, but more of a stop-gap measure. Plus, going to dialysis is like having a part-time job on top of a full-time job: Carla goes directly from work to a facility in Catonsville and is "hooked up" for three and a half hours, which, with the necessary prep and recovery procedures on either end, can extend to more than four or five hours. And then she gets up and comes in to work and puts in a full day the next day.
Carla's office features a preponderance of Eeyore figures and illustrations — and it's not too hard to find the parallel. Carla says her immediate family gave her the nickname because she would always sigh and say "All right" in a resigned tone as she would get up to do what had to be done to take care of them.
Carla's role as a caretaker started early — her younger sister, mother, father and uncle all have diabetes. Her father became paralyzed when she was 10, and Carla looked after him and her sister while her mother went to work at several jobs in Baltimore. There is not a thread of self-pity in the fabric of the story of her childhood — in fact, Carla speaks with pride about the diet she grew up with; the diet she used to manage her own diabetes without medication until her early 20s.
When Carla began to become seriously ill after dealing with an unexpected infection in her foot, the family nephrologist encouraged her to go on dialysis. She deliberated and discussed the various options with her family first, and she began treatment in September of 2010. Almost immediately, her doctor urged her to apply to be on the transplant list, but it took Carla almost a year.
The doctor said it typically takes 3-4 years to get a kidney, but because Carla's blood type was rare, it might happen sooner. Carla began the process to get on the transplant list in the summer of 2011, signing up to be matched with a donor from the "cadaver" list.
Living organ donation did not cross Carla's mind — not even when her 21-year-old son offered his kidney two years ago. Knowing the family's genetics and propensity for kidney disease, she just couldn't consider it. What if her son were suddenly to be diagnosed with diabetes and need a kidney?
Carla was notified that she was officially on the transplant list in March, 2012. She got the call about the living donor match in mid-June. Thanks to this anonymous, living, incredibly giving, donor, Carla's surgery is now scheduled for this week.
"I am just blessed that I was a match," she says. "I don't know the person, but I wish I could let them know how much it means. I just want this person to know that I will do everything I can to be worthy of this second chance at life."
And so, come fall, I'll get to interview the editors of Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics about their living organ donation issue. But I'll also get to walk over to Carla's cubicle and understand this incredible gift in a more profound and personal way.
Just another day at the office? Not for Carla, for sure. And not for me, either.
Janet Gilbert works in Baltimore and lives in Woodstock. Visit her at http://www.janetgilbert.net.