Transplant

I have written about my sister Sharlie in the past (here and here), and she received a double lung and heart transplant over the weekend. To read more about her, and to follow her progress, visit Sharlie's Angels on Facebook. She has been an inspiration to me and so many others. There was a lot of down time this past weekend as we waited in the hospital while Sharlie underwent her surgeries and I had a chance to write some of my thoughts down, and while personal, I wanted to share them here in hopes that her story continues to inspire others. Thank you for reading.

I don't like hospitals. They are big, industrial, generic places, unfeeling, too clean, too many fluorescent lights, too much sickness, tired nurses, and bad memories. I dreaded going, but when I arrived at Sharlie's room, it was like a church, quiet, light and calm. I have spent many hours in hospital rooms with Sharlie, but none as important as Thursday. After a late night call and a frantic ride through the night from San Diego to Palo Alto, past swerving big rigs and methed up drivers drifting too close, pushing me to the shoulder, and too tired to correct as I listened to the hum of my wheels on the graded road.

Once at the hospital I found Sharlie's room, full of family and her high school friends. Suedy and Jessica, the same friends that have been there through the years, always bringing the party to Sharlie during her long hospital stays, making sure she never missed out on any of the junior high and high school fun. My mom was there along with my brother in law, Ryan, and everyone was smiling, calm, and waiting. Sharlie sat on the bed, soon to be wheeled down the hallway, to the operating room where her heart and lungs would be removed from her body and a stranger's organs put in their place. A family has made the decision to give this gift, the most generous gift of life to a complete stranger, and I hope they learn about Sharlie and her remarkable story and that it comforts them, because I know Sharlie will honor this gift as a living and breathing testament of gratitude.

I can still feel this hug.
Me, Sharlie, Mom, and Ryan. Pre-transplant.
Sharlie was the calmest person in the room.

The surgery went well. It was long, but there were no serious complications and after the final update from the surgeon, I had the urge to hug him, but I just clapped. It was all I could think to do for this artist.

The next morning we were told that there was internal bleeding and that Sharlie would have to undergo another surgery to stop the bleeding and remove the blood that had pooled beneath one of her lungs. It was another long procedure and as I sat in waiting room I noticed a mother and daughter, older, with matching red eyes and wrinkles being laid as they waited for a son or husband or brother. I would occasionally catch glances and we would look at each other, bonded by this waiting.

The doors to the various operating rooms would open loudly and doctors, nurses, orderlies, would walk through, all with the look of people going about their normal jobs as we wait with expectant eyes, searching for some sign, a smile, satisfaction, a worried look, anything to betray what is going on behind the heavy doors with signs and big red capital letters that screamed "no entry." These workers are used to the expectant waiting room looks and avoid eye contact, not wanting to give false hope, or hints of failure.

I walked the halls and looked at the art, most of it standard hospital art, landscapes, the sea, and flowers, but there was a series by a Russian artist, Ilya Kabakov called "The Flying Komarov" and this series was meaningful for me, or maybe I was just searching for some meaning. The series of drawings stretched down the hallway and the first few look like people jumping off buildings, but then as you continue down the long hallway, you see that the people are floating, flying, couples holding hands higher and higher, disappearing in the clouds.



That morning, they rolled Sharlie down the hall, machines, tubes, bandages everywhere, still under sedation, looking lifeless, bleeding near her lungs. The initial transplant went well and this was just one setback, and there will be more. This is going to be a long healing process, and Sharlie will need to fight, but she is strong. The previous evening the joy of the new organs and successful transplant rippled through the waiting room, but the reality is that there will be new issues, post transplant issues, and struggles as her body tries to make these foreign tissues, cells, muscles her own. I watched as my mom, my sister, and Sharlie's husband kissed her as they rolled her into another surgery. I don't like seeing her this way, sedated, unconscious. I need to see her soft smile, her calmness reassuring that everything is going to be good. Her faith, big enough for both of us.

Post-transplant.

It was beautiful out, sunny and cool, and I had to get away from sitting, from the lights of the hospital. I had to stretch my legs out, so I found some nice trails near Stanford in the Arastradero Preserve. I changed to running clothes in my truck, trying not to flash the van-load of senior citizens who had parked next to me. I followed a trail along a creek as it narrowed to shady single track and I ran as fast as I could, stretching my lungs out in some sort of glorious punishment.

Trail therapy



I left Saturday morning, but before the drive back to San Diego, I was able to spend a couple hours by Sharlie's side as she woke up from the cloud of anesthesia. Her eyes were brighter than the previous night, her skin was glowing and her breath was steady and deep. We talked that morning about the donor and how grateful and sad Sharlie was, and how in her mind and prayers she always used "she" when referring to her. We talked about the coming months, the healing and the strengthening and how for the first time in her life, she will be getting stronger. We talked about the challenges and bumps in the road that will require much strength and dedication, and I can't think of anyone who is better equipped to deal with and overcome the challenges. There were words said that morning that were so special to me, words that I will never have to write down; they are written in my heart.

Now, my heart is full with gratitude for so many people who have helped Sharlie on her journey. I am so grateful to the surgeons and the transplant team at Stanford, giving life, doing the work of gods. I am grateful that Sharlie will be staying in Los Altos for a while. It is a beautiful place with hundreds of miles of tree-covered trails and I can see her healing as she explores the area.

Before Sharlie went into surgery, my mom asked her what she wanted to do with her new lungs. She said, without hesitation, I want to run with Dax. And this piece hasn't been about running, but for me it has everything to do with running. When I picture Sharlie in my mind, I see her running, and as she was wheeled away for her transplant surgery and as I whispered be strong, I love you, you're amazing, you're my hero, and gave her a final hug, she whispered see you on the trails. And I do see her on the trails, smiling, stretching her lungs, laughing, racing her young son to the next tree, and dropping us all, her spirit dwarfing the giant redwoods.


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