Matt Probus, Featured Collaborator
When I was asked to write a piece for this new magazine, I was, of course, flattered and humbled. Then the editor made the real "ask"—would I write about my decision to donate a kidney to my older brother? I was still flattered and humbled, but now there was an onion sitting before me needing a good peeling. The first layer was fear. Not a run of the mill fear of having a piece out there in the public. No, a deeper fear. A personal fear. A fear of exposing my personal thoughts and emotions to the public. In full disclosure, I have been writing a book about the experience. But it is one thing to write a memoir that may sit on a laptop and quite another to submit an article and watch it go live online for the world to see. But I knew I couldn't say no.
Before getting into my journey, let me set the stage. I am one of five children. My older brother Mike is the oldest and I am a little more than a year younger than him. I have a brother who is a bit more than two years younger than me, a sister who is four years younger, and a sister who is eight years younger. As the family planning went, Mike and I shared a bedroom, the two sisters shared a bedroom, and Mark was odd man out in his own room. It was this way for my 17 years of childhood before I left for college.
My parents started me in school young so that I would follow Mike in school one grade below. So for those 17 years we trailed through the same teachers. For a few years in high school we even had some classes together. As kids, where Mike went, I went. And every night we lay down in the same bedroom and talked ourselves to sleep. For 17 years. When we were in our early 20's, we went through law school together.
After Mike and I graduated law school and got proper jobs, Mike found out as a result of what he thought would be routine life insurance lab tests, that he was born with one kidney; and the one he had wasn't the best of kidneys. The day he told me—some 25 or so years ago—I remember blurting out, "If you ever need a kidney, you know I'll give you one of mine." Be careful what you ask for, or in this case, what you offer. As the years passed, it slipped my mind altogether that Mike was living with one kidney because he never presented any symptoms. Until a few years ago. When I would see him, he seemed to move a little slower. He looked a little paler. But I dismissed what I noticed as being a natural part of the aging process or his busy law practice taking its toll.
Then on a visit to see him a few years ago he shared with me (after a few glasses of scotch) that his kidney was failing him. Its functionality had decreased to a level that put him on the national kidney organ donor list. I listened intently as he detailed the organ list process, the progression of kidney failure, and the point at which he would have to begin dialysis. I didn't pipe up with any offers of a kidney. It was shocking. If a kidney did not become available in time, he would die a very early death. He didn't phrase his situation this way, but it was not rocket science. I got it.
Again, time passed and I put the entire situation out of my mind. The thought of my closest sibling slowing dying was not something I was ready to face. The idea of giving a kidney was alien. And terrifying. I was not ready to face that either.
One Valentine's Day morning as I was pulling into my parking space at work, I heard my cell phone bing that I had a new email. As most of us are trained to do, I immediately checked to see what the message was. It was from Mike's wife, Luz. Strange. She never emailed or called me. A strange sense swept over me that something had gone wrong. I clicked on the message and began skimming the email to rule out deaths in the family. As I waded into an email that filled the screen of the phone, I slowed. She explained that Mike's kidney was failing much quicker than they thought it would. If it went much longer, he would be forced to start dialysis, Mike had been accepted to a living kidney donor program at the Texas Transplant Institute. The doctors recommended a kidney transplant before dialysis if possible, so that the body is strong and has better chances of successful recovery. Siblings were the most likely match for organ donation. I scrolled back to the top of the email, which I had ignored. The email was directed to the brothers and sisters. I scrolled back down and kept reading. She said anyone who wanted to be tested to see if they were a possible match should call the Texas Transplant Institute for an initial screening. She gave the phone number.
I stood outside my office building staring down at the email for a while. Then I stared out across the drive.
Then I looked at the sun on the horizon peeking through the clouds, softening the brisk February Houston air. I felt sad for Luz. I felt sad for his two children. I felt tears welling up in my eyes and fought them back as people walked behind me on the walkway into the building.
I walked around the back of the parking garage and dialed the Texas Transplant Institute. After a 45 minute telephone interview, I was told I was eligible to pursue testing to see if I was a match and could be a prospective donor.
When I hung up, two things hit me immediately. First, that I had not waited and spoken with my wife about the decision to be tested. Second, that I was on a path to have one of my kidneys removed and put into my brother.
Over the months that followed, I lost count of the number of people who told me how brave I was to be donating a kidney or how generous or how lucky my brother was to have me. Maybe there are organ donors who fit that bill. Not me. I was terrified. I hoped I would be ruled out as a prospective donor on that first call. I thought for sure I would be ruled out by the blood tests. I didn't want to undergo major surgery that has a possible risk of death. I didn't want to be a hero and didn't want to die. Since that day I have asked myself what could have possibly pushed me to make the call without hesitation. It is something that cannot be described logically. It is a reaction, like a chemical reaction, induced by combining love of a person with thoughts of a life spent together.
I don't think it mattered that it was my brother. It could have been my wife or a life-long friend. It is something that either happens or it doesn't I think. If you have to sit and think about whether you would give an organ to, you shouldn't give one to that person. I certainly learned in that moment that there are those I would never have made the call for. Mike had earned the call. So it wasn't any bravery or character on my part. It was character and a life well lived on Mike's part.
I spent over six months having every medical test known to man run on me. I was cleared to be Mike's donor in November of 2015. Surgery was scheduled for January 15, 2016. I am now a kidney donor and Mike is healthy and happy. The journey in between the first call and the surgery was one that changed my life. It was as much a gift to me as to Mike.