I REMEMBER the moment well. It was seven o’clock in the morning, and I was packed and ready to leave for the airport on my way to Oberammergau, to make a radio programme about the famous Passion Play.
My hospital consultant was on the phone. It was the call I had been waiting for four years — indeed, after nearly five years I had almost given up hope. “We have a kidney suitable for a transplant,” he said.
I was, at the time, dependent on renal dialysis — two long sessions a week — and everything — work, family life, and leisure time — revolved around that. A transplant would free me from the tie, and give me back a life that did not involve a strict diet, restriction on fluid intake, and the relentless cyclical fluctuations of health, going from washed-out to functioning and back to knackered every three days.
Judging from success rates then, the transplant promised to give me an extra ten to 15 years of quality life. In a few exceptional cases, this might lengthen to 20.
This spring, I celebrate a landmark anniversary that I never expected. My transplant and I have been together for 30 years. It is older than all of my grandchildren — it even exceeds the age of some of the hospital doctors I have seen of late. And, while other ailments of old age are catching up, the kidney still works well.
This year, as every year, I will write to the donor’s family to express my ongoing gratitude. The letter is anonymous, as it is not policy to reveal names (just gender), and will be channelled through the transplant office at Guy’s. I will, in due course, receive an unsigned reply from my donor’s father. It was in one such letter that I learned that a flowering cherry had been planted in the donor’s name — which gave me the idea for the artwork I designed for Guy’s Hospital to mark the 25th anniversary in 2015.
My mind will go back 30 years to a time when, I must admit, I gave no thought to the circumstances of my donor’s death. I was too absorbed in my own hopes and fears. Yet it would have been the time when her family would have been experiencing their most acute grief. I can now imagine the scene of a doctor talking to them about transplantation. They would have touched a breathing corpse and kissed a daughter gently for the last time, and shed many tears before the life-support machine was switched off.
ANAESTHESIA is death with a return ticket. I came round from my transplant operation in fits and starts, slowly realising my weakness, my nakedness, and the indignities of intrusive tubes and wires. It was night, and the beginning of the longest, darkest night of my life. A catheter blocked with clotted blood; a tube in my neck needed replacing twice. Why had I ever started?
The night turned to day, and I was told that, after all I had been through, the kidney was not working. It was back to the theatre. The surgeon told me later that it was touch and go. Would he remove the transplant or not? Fortunately, he left it plumbed in to give it time to revive.
Through all of this my thoughts were entirely self-centred; and yet it would have been the time of my donor’s funeral, and all the formalities that the next-of-kin have to go through after a death.
For the Christian, God is a God of love who, in his love, suffered for us the agonies of Calvary. There are people I have met who talk of turning mental and physical suffering into a form of praise. God knows how they do it. I am certainly no hero when it comes to pain. These people talk of moments of suffering resolving into moments of tranquillity and comprehension; they might speak of being “held in the hands of God”, or being “carried by Christ”.
When it comes to describing the profound, the mystical, and the spiritual, our minds can cope only with metaphor and parable. Our day-to-day language is so inadequate when it comes to explaining mystery.
There was nothing the doctors, or fellow transplant patients, told me in advance that truly prepared me for the experience I went through. Nor could my donor’s family have been prepared for what they were destined to endure. They might have had a faith, but I can understand why many people find organised religion pretty pointless, until they have a life crisis and themselves have to confront spiritual mystery. Religion, I was once told, is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who have been there.
Perhaps the folk of Oberammergau have got it right. If you want to get a grasp of what the story of the Passion and crucifixion is all about, you have to be involved; you have to take part. Perhaps I could have shared with them some small insight, if I hadn’t had my seven-o’clock call.
I never did get to Oberammergau, but the kidney did work in the end. It came to life again on Easter Day.
Ted Harrison is a writer and artist.