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Giving thanks for a dying friend’s second chance

/ Source: NBC News

I was in a local grill having lunch with some pals when my cell phone started vibrating. I was prepared to ignore it, when I saw the area code for the call’s origin.

It was from Nashville, Tenn., where one of my very closest friends had received a liver transplant at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center less than 48 hours earlier. 

It was my friend, Don Janney, calling from his hospital bed, and of course I picked up the phone (proving there are times when the new intrusiveness of the latest technologies can be justified).

He slurred his words a bit, drugged against the pain he said wasn’t really that bad.  He said, “I feel fine,” a couple of times, and guessed correctly that one of my lunch companions was Mike Landi, a local artist and fisherman. They spoke for a minute or so, and then I stepped outside the restaurant to listen to everything and anything Don had to say to me.

It was a lot – he was rambling, one thought or observation after another just tumbling out without need of any response from me. I was thrilled to hear it all because it was about the experience of his surgery, his minute by minute emergence from the dark side, his prospects from here on out. 

It was all about living, when for nearly eight months as his physical condition deteriorated at alarming speed, Don’s preoccupation had been with dying. In fact, he’d come close several times. When his energy for conversation was spent and he rang off, I stood outside for a minute or two in the bright midday sun, feeling elevated, almost laugh-out-loud giddy.

Until you’re touched by a miracle, it’s really just an overused word.

A second chance

When Don, 61, got the call from the hospital he was weeks away from dying and knew it.  He’d phoned me before rushing off to get prepped for surgery to say he’d just endured the worst days and nights of his decline, new internal pains he was certain were evidence of some ancillary malady that would disqualify him for transplant, and anguished over his predicament that would not subside.

In prior months, slipping into an understandable depression, he’d often spoken and written of his death as though it would be a welcome end to both the physical and psychological agony of a protracted wait with little hope. In those last days, he’d said, he was sure he couldn’t take much more…and then the call came.   

Now he has an 85 percent chance of surviving one to five years, or longer. It was the ultimate second chance, when he was so close to the long goodbye.

Transplants saving lives

Actually liver transplantation, though technically challenging and not without significant risk, isn’t seen as a medical miracle any longer.

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For three decades it’s been a widely-accepted treatment for end-stage liver disease, and 5,000-6,000 patients receive liver transplants each year in the U.S. alone. None of those procedures seem worth a headline unless the recipient happens to be notable — Mickey Mantle, Gregg Allman or Evel Knievel.

Don, like everyone else who receives the extraordinary gift of a donated human organ, is notable primarily to the people who know and love him. We’re the ones who’ve had to think about the ways in which his death would have diminished our lives. Now, instead, we can now think about how he’ll continue to enrich and delight us, as he so often has.

An original

We’re each a product of the whole of our individual lives, but Don, the son of an eccentric actor father and a multi-lingual melodramatic mother, became a more interesting whole than any one person could expect to be. In the full flower of his life he, too, spoke several foreign languages well or at least passably; made himself expert in such diverse subjects as wines, gourmet cooking, photography, U.S. currencies, firearms and dance. He became devoted as a kind of intellectual Luddite to classic forms of the crafts he admired — the stories and golf musings of P.G. Wodehouse, movies like “Delicatessen” and “Cinema Paradiso,” and so on. 

And once he allowed himself to be dragged into the modern age of computers and Blackberrys, the email addresses of his close friends became the targets of his regular blasts of criticism and social commentary. He’d rail against the erosion of culture and the decline of communication skills in the new media age — fulminating in e-rage when a reporter leaning into the winds of a building hurricane said local residents were “battering down the hatches…”

Don could be, and often was, a well-spoken blunt instrument, dangerously close to toppling the china and being unfit for polite company.

But only close; his charm and authentic generosity always won the day. Just as his will to live prevailed over his melancholy inclination to surrender to his damaged health — an inclination about which he was honest in his typically unfiltered way.  

Bracing for the worst

He’d convinced most of his friends that he was ready to go, without ceremony or notice. In fact he’d told each of us in one unvarnished way or another, after he left New York for Nashville, where a college pal and his wife (a critical care nurse) could give him round-the-clock care, that he didn’t want any visitors until whatever happened-happened.

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I’d been reading a lot about liver transplants, and liver disease. I watched Don suffer through all the symptoms leading to end-stage liver failure — and he did suffer.   

He stopped believing he’d ever get a transplant if he stayed in New York.  He packed a single small bag and flew to his friends in Nashville, and to whatever future was left for him.

I won’t share his instructions to us, except to say they were dark and bitter.  He’d retreated from all of us; we’d begun to mourn him.

And then, he got the call.

Miraculous system

“It’s showtime!!” his blast email said, before he left for the hospital for the transplant.  “All communications will be suspended as of now, until further notice.  I love you all…”

In Nashville, Don found, after a much shorter time than he or any of us might have guessed, that there might be a future for him after all.

The real miracle, it turned out, was that long-established and constantly improving surgical techniques combined with a carefully designed waiting list means that the sickest patients – like Don – move toward the top of organ waiting list and to the best chance at the best results.  And because Don also has a rare blood type, he had an exponentially better chance that he’d get the call when a donor organ with compatible blood and tissue types became available.

Though most liver transplant patients wait a year or more to receive a donor organ — nearly 10 percent don’t make it — Don was on the waiting list for less than three weeks.

Thanksgiving for a friend

Thinking about him the morning after that phone call from his ICU room, I opened my wallet and found the two dog-eared donor cards I’ve been carrying around since the last century, and wondered if they were still in effect. Then I looked at my New York state driver’s license, and saw that it had the organ donor “heart” icon on it, so I guess I’m still a listed donor. 

I always thought it was a good idea and of course it is. In 2001 my younger brother Steven got a heart transplant, and now one of the important friends in my life has another chance because people keep signing up to be donors. 

It’s easy, all you have to do to join the national United Network for Organ Sharing at           

As for me, I’m just happy that the next time I try a bit too hard to impress someone and roll out a multi-syllabic word that doesn’t quite fit, I might hear Don criticizing me once more for triggering a bout of hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia…which, as only he would know on the spot, means “fear of long words.”

Really. That’s what it means.