A Drug Addict Saved My Life
It Wasn't the End
Addiction, hmph. Something my donor and I had in common. I guess the main difference was the source. It’s acceptable when you’re hospitalized and monitored. Even then, things can get out of hand the more your body builds up a tolerance to pain meds. I was even counseled on my habit, although it developed under the care of multiple medical professionals during my hospitalization. That’s like the corner boy pulling you to the side to discuss your drug problem.
I needed something for anxiety and I needed pain meds. I was tethered to machines pumping my blood and breathing for me. I was in pain. I was anxious. I was terrified. My heart was racing even while in a coma. Sedation. Sedation. And more sedation, please.
Gayle authorized them to connect me to a VA or veno-arterial ECMO. A life-saving machine used for heart and lung support, instead of a VV or veno-venous ECMO used just for lung support. At which point, I died. Any time before age 90 is really inconvenient for me.
Obviously, they successfully brought me back to life, but I was still on the VV ECMO. Two days later, they suggested either giving up or going back inside my body to attempt the VA ECMO because my heart and lungs needed the support. Gayle advised them to go back in because they hadn’t come this far to give up. If doing nothing would kill me, she may as well keep her promise to agree to anything that might save me so I can be here for my kids.
Instead of going through my neck again to place the VA ECMO, they were going to crack my chest. It wasn’t the preferred point of entry because it was more risky, and my heart had already stopped once. I’m assuming this is when part of the tourniquet broke off inside me. It was too invasive to dig around to retrieve it, so they closed me up as is.
Gayle gave her consent. On edge, I soothed her angst. Surprisingly, I was semi responsive in a comatose kind of way. Readings on monitors changed when there was stimuli. So she talked to me about it. She got my permission to keep trying via morse code with my eyebrows. Everytime she called me Oprah, I'd move my eyes and my famous eyebrows assuring her I was still there. The nurses hearing her refer to me as “O”, seemed to make them get more invested in my care. I mean, who would let Oprah die?!
The next challenge after the VA ECMO was finally successful was making sure I wouldn't become a vegetable. Gayle began showing up sometimes 2-3 times a day because her social work kept her in the field and many of her assessments were in the neighborhood. When she couldn’t make it, she sent her sister or mother to check on me. She requested recreation therapy to play music by Tank and Jamie Foxx to stimulate my mind with positive thoughts.
My condition was worsening. It had been seven months without a donor match. I required the lungs of a young adult or teenager. My own lungs were smaller than the average woman my age. In order to survive, I would have to rely on the lungs of someone else’s child around the age of one of my own.
My palliative medication had been increased. I was fading in and out. I knew people were near. Talking around me. Praying over me. Gayle and my sister Mona were contacted to prepare them for the end. They were told to bring my children to say goodbye to me the next day. Mona stated they need only have the faith of a mustard seed, though she had enough to fill the entire hospital.
The day before the end, my Lung Transplant Nurse Coordinator called me for my consent to accept the available lungs. You see, one day I was dying and the next day I was beginning a new life. On November 15, 2019, I received healthy new lungs.
Sometimes, an organ becomes available from a donor who has “an increased chance of transmitting viral diseases”, these individuals are known as “increased risk donors”. The CDC has determined those with a history of risky behavior such as incarceration, prostitution and IV drug use, places them at a greater than usual risk level for spreading diseases.
Increased risk donors are tested for HIV, and Hepatitis B and C. The risk of such a disease being transmitted is less than one percent, but not impossible. My condition was dire and the need for new organs was immediate. My doctors felt the reward outweighed the risk, so I agreed.
She was 24. A former heroin addict. There was a higher risk associated with receiving the lungs from a known drug abuser, but her unfortunate overdose was to be my salvation.
They cut down the center of my chest. A little off-center, if I’m being honest. The incisions wrapped under each breast. My chest was closed with metal wires and hooks, leaving me with the feeling of wearing a permanent harness beneath the surface of my scarred skin. I still had a broken tourniquet piece embedded somewhere amongst the flesh in my chest. But I was alive.
After my transplant, they took me off the strong stuff causing me to go through withdrawal. I had days of vomiting, resisting urges and feeling as if I was being made to suffer. Although, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to live to complain about that beautiful suffering had it not been for the addict who saved my life.
I had faith that everything would be alright in the end. And if it wasn't all right, it wasn't the end.