It can be about friendship, gifts and sharing what’s in our heart. It can be about giving big.
My dear friend Tracey shared this amazing love story with me and it’s my Valentine to you.
Tracey’s parents met at a bowling alley on a blind date set up by friends, both barely into their 20s. Her dad became a toy designer for cereal boxes, her mother—a loving homemaker. Tracey and her brother grew up surrounded with old-fashioned love from parents and grandparents.
“My dad is completely devoted to my mom,” Tracey raves. He’s the most important thing to her and her to him. He’s taken such tender care of her through two bouts of cancer, sitting through every chemo.”
Tracey’s mom had a cancerous kidney removed. For 10 years, the remaining kidney hung on, working overtime. Its time was up.
Tracey’s mom didn’t want to live on dialysis, so began the long, difficult process of looking for a transplant. She needed a kidney badly. Tracey’s family all got tested, but weren’t a match. There was a limited pool of candidates, due to her blood type—they needed more people.
They learned about something called “paired donation” that can speed up the process.
Paired donation is similar to giving an organ directly to your loved one. Except it is given to someone else instead. And someone else’s loved one gives one to someone else and so on until the chain is completed. The ultimate pay it forward.
Tracey and her brother both jumped up waving their hands to donate a kidney for their mother. But Tracey’s dad wouldn’t hear of it. His children were still young, with children of their own to care for. He was 71, and as always, more than ready to step up to the plate for his darling wife, whatever it took.
Meanwhile, Tracey had been researching online how to find a kidney, trying to speed up the process. Like her parents, Tracey is a very private person. But she went public, creating a Facebook page to search for a kidney, imploring friends to share the page with friends of friends.
This is where it comes in handy to be fabulous. Most of Tracey’s friends responded right away and those who didn’t got a personal plea from Tracey during her daily campaigning. In the end, 99% of her friends shared, forwarded and cared.
After waiting many months, a match was found by Mayo. Everyone rejoiced! The relief. But then the whole thing fell through. The match wasn’t made in heaven after all.
Tracey closed her eyes, remembering for a moment. “Everyone was devastated. Waiting for the kidney was torture; we were on pins and needles.”
Tracey’s mom was very sick. Time was running out.
As a result of one of Tracey’s repeated messages, a friend of a high school alum made a suggestion to contact the Living Kidney Donor Network.Tracey spoke to the founder, Harvey Mysel, who offered to meet with her parents. A kidney recipient himself, Harvey told them not to put all their eggs in the Mayo basket, urging them to widen the pool and explore other places, like Loyola.
Within a month of getting established at Loyola, another kidney was found, through the paired donor pool. Tracey’s mom and dad were scheduled for surgery on the same day, within two weeks of their 50th anniversary.
There was a 20 person chain making up the final list of paired donors. The logistics of scheduling all those surgeries in different parts of the country was an enormous challenge. Then the surgery for Tracey’s dad’s kidney recipient was pushed back a couple days.
I asked Tracey if her dad could have changed his mind once his wife’s new kidney was snuggled in place.
“The donor can change his or her mind, even on the table up to the moment before anesthesia,” Tracey explained. “But my dad said he would never back out. He’d never put another family through the devastation we all felt when the first kidney fell through.”
Both surgeries were ultimately a success, though her mother spent some scary time in the ICU while her family held their breath. Tracey’s parents recovered on the same hospital floor. They were each other’s incentive to get out of bed. Dad painfully walked each day to see his bride and her healthy new kidney. The nurses thought they were adorable.
While the family waited for a kidney, for the surgeries, for the recoveries, Tracey and I were working on a 50th anniversary gift—I was drawing a pencil portrait of her mom and dad—with their parents, children and grandchildren. Choosing images of all those beloved faces was bittersweet and more emotional. Most of the grandparents were gone and Tracey was facing the loss of both of her own parents. She fretted over the photos, needing each one to be right.
And then, a happy ending—mom’s kidney came from Pennsylvania, dad’s kidney went to Utah. On their anniversary, Tracey and her brother presented the portrait to her parents: precious children, beautiful grandchildren, beloved parents.
One kidney found, one kidney given, one grateful family.
And now, six months later, everyone is doing beautifully.
“While my mom was recuperating in the ICU,” Tracey told me, “I kept thinking, what if she doesn’t get to see her parents together in the portrait? What if something happens? I thought the portrait was going to be big. But it was so much bigger than I thought.”
The portrait was more than just a celebration of 50 years of family love and marriage. We were hoping against hope that it would be a celebration of life.
Author: Wendy Zumpano
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photo: courtesy of the author