Everyday, for the past ten years, I have quietly celebrated the joy of a human life.
When, on February 18th 2007, I was wheeled into the operating room at King’s Hospital for a liver transplant, my life was saved. Two years earlier I had been diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and had increasingly come to live at life’s edge, with nine months on the waiting list and growing numbers of worrying attacks of encephalopathy where I lost memory and mind. But on that day, with the magnificent skill of doctors; the care, craft and kindness of nurses and co-ordinators; the tragic generosity of a donor; and the love of dear friends and family, my life was saved. I am perpetually grateful for this.
After four days in intensive care, three and a half weeks on the liver ward, and three months in a kind of recovery quarantine, my bile duct bag was removed and symbolized the end of my illness. Gradually a full life was restored. I was ‘born again’; and I breathed a quiet but very deep thank you. Every day since then has been that wonderful extra day of life that I would never have had if I had been born at any other time in history. The world of transplantation is always tinged with great sadness and great joy; and I have been fortunate for the joy.
I function on a low immune system but my health has been good. I gave up alcohol on the day of my diagnosis, and post transplant, I have continued completely without it. It is now over twelve years since I (or my partner) had any drink. I take my medications daily and go to King’s for regular checks. For a long while this has meant a visit every six months; nowadays it is a yearly visit in January. The only complication has been diabetes induced by medications; but I see a diabetic nurse every six months and follow the health guidelines. I am told I am doing very well.
I have made contact with the donor’s family indirectly through the hospital transplant coordinators; and have written to them annually to express my continuing gratitude. But confidentiality has been maintained; and there has been no face to face to contact.
Facing life threatening illness and recovering gave me cause for a lot of reflection. Indeed, in the first four months of my recovery I would write about it every day and finally produced an autobiography of my illness. It speaks of how my life was completely changed by illness; of how I struggled to make sense of it all, and especially the problems of being on a waiting list, experiencing hallucinations after the surgery, my potential dying, the challenge of living with another’s body organ, as well as the joys, almost manic, of recovery. I found this period of reflection very valuable: it gave me a record of what I had been through (much of which I would hardly be able to recall without it) and it enabled me to bring a closure to my illness. I do still think about it daily but without any sense of pain or trauma.
Since my surgery, I have lived a quiet but rich and full life. I was 60 when I had the transplant, and the illness led me to early sickness retirement from the University where I had worked for thirty years. I decided not to set my self any grand new tasks – no travelling the world or becoming a world athlete! Instead I continued with ordinary life enjoying each day as it comes.
Writing is my passion: so I write a little every day, usually in the early hours of the day. Since my recovery in 2007 I have written four books and some twenty little articles along with a range of not very good poems. I have decided I am no poet! I have also enjoyed reading more and more widely; and have continued with a little teaching and lecturing, some of which has taken me overseas to Brescia, Pisa, Kassel, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Madrid.
I support a very large number of wide ranging charities (over 40) from the British Liver Trust, Terrence Higgins. the Alzheimer’s Foundation and Help Musicians to Victims of Torture, Amnesty International, Global Justice and a local emergency Night Shelter – as well as the donor’s favourite: the Chestnut Tree House Children’s Hospital.
I also started to learn to play the piano, badly but enjoyably, which has also made me listen to music more carefully. I have developed some digital skills (running my own web site); and taken up daily exercise (gentle walking every day along a river that constantly fills me with delight). I also enjoy a little traveling: one highlight being a trip to Costa Rica. Nowadays I have the time to go the theatre a lot: usually to see musicals, especially fringe musicals. I enjoy friends and cooking; and spend very good time just enjoying living with my partner (We moved house in 2012 and now look forward to our 40th anniversary together).
I keep cheery despite all the dreadful troubles of a world that fills me with fear for the coming generations. Thinking of my transplant and all the altruism, care, knowledge, skill, kindness, generosity and love that surrounded it helps to sustain me in a very positive and ultimately hopeful view of the world. We must always look beyond the dark times.