I’ve learned over the years that when I start a sentence with “So …,” I’m about to say something stupid.
This became even more apparent at one of Mrs. Frese’s doctor’s appointments several weeks ago.
“So,” I said, and I could tell from her expression she was thinking, “Here we go …”
“So, let’s say, God forbid, something goes horribly wrong with this surgery, and you don’t make it,” I said to her. “How long do you want me to wait before I get remarried?”
My wife — whose name is Natalie — didn’t roll her eyes, but I’m pretty sure she thought about it.
“Look,” Natalie said. “You can get remarried as soon as you can find someone who will marry you.”
“Woo-hoo!” I said.
I thought about high-fiving the nurse before I realized what Natalie was really saying.
“Wait,” I said. “What do you mean ‘as soon as you can find someone who will marry you’?”
She didn’t say anything. She just shared a knowing look with the nurse, who curled up the corner of her mouth and said, “Mm-hmm.”
As you might have guessed, this is a bit of a love story.
Natalie Parker grew up on a farm outside tiny Parkerville, Kan. She is the oldest of five kids. There’s Natalie, then there are identical triplet sisters (Emily, Beverly and Kimberly) and then there’s her brother, Jimmy. Her family has some of the best stories.
To give her mom relief, her dad would take toddler Natalie down to the dairy barn and strap her in a car seat he nailed to the wall, where she sat naming cows as her dad brought them in for milking.
She took out her childhood jealousy of her little sisters by lining them up in a row, giving them scissors and saying, “Let’s give each other haircuts.” (Natalie, of course, took her place at the back of the line, where her hair went untouched.)
Come Halloween time, every year she wanted to be a ballerina. Her mom, however, often went for a theme. The triplets were going to be the three little kittens who lost their mittens, for example, and Natalie had to be the momma cat.
The triplets sometimes entertained guests by going into another room, changing clothes, then coming back out and making guests guess which sister they were. Not to be outdone, young Jimmy once disappeared, came back into the living room naked as the day he was born and said, “Which one am I?”
When they get together and share these stories, they laugh and laugh and laugh. It’s really the only way they have to remember them, because there are few photographs and home movies.
When Natalie was a sophomore at Council Grove High School, her family’s house burned to the ground. They were having supper at Pizza Hut in Council Grove in early February when her dad hurriedly gathered them up, hustled them into the car and raced for the farm, some 17 miles away, most of it on gravel road.
That had to have been a long 17 miles. Driving in the wintry dark toward an orange glow on the horizon where your home stood, the light growing brighter and more intense as you come closer, your family members crying all around you.
They lost everything. Clothes, couches, beds, coats. Natalie’s piano, her Mrs. Beasley doll, her copy of “Little Women” — all gone.
All Natalie had at that moment was a sweater and a pair of jeans and her family.
My wife teaches second grade at Tonganoxie Elementary School. I won’t say how long she has been teaching, but when we were at the local cafe for breakfast the other morning, the waitress said, “You had my brother in class, didn’t you? He turns 21 today.”
“That’s nothing,” she said. “Some of my former students have kids.”
For the past several years, Natalie and her fellow teachers had noticed something was a little off with their principal, Ty Poell (it’s pronounced “pale”).
The kids remarked that Mr. Poell didn’t sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” over the school intercom anymore. His skin seemed yellow. He didn’t hear well. You’d see him walking the halls in the afternoons and he looked like he needed to nap for about four full days. Teachers would come away from conversations with him and wonder if he had understood a thing they were saying.
And he was always so cold. In the middle of the summer, he would leave his office and go out to his pickup truck in the parking lot. There he’d sit in the driver’s seat with the motor off and the windows rolled up, splaying his arms across the dark dashboard trying to absorb the warmth.
“That felt so good,” he said.
In time, he told his staff he was in the throes of kidney failure, a result of Alport syndrome, a genetic condition that results in kidney disease.
He knew this fate was a possibility. His brother had received a kidney transplant. His uncle died from kidney failure. But only after a trip to urgent care on a night Ty’s blood pressure seemed out of control did he learn the truth: His kidneys had failed. He needed a transplant.
For the better part of a year, Ty, 42, spent nine hours a night on dialysis. He and his wife, Jessica, hadn’t gone on a date in a year. Their home looked like a medical supplies warehouse, with boxes and boxes of fluid stacked in their kitchen and bedroom. Their sons, Brayden, 9, and Luke, 6, were confused about why their dad couldn’t roughhouse any more. He lost his taste for beer. He couldn’t eat cheese, milk, potatoes, salt, tomatoes.
“No wings,” he said.
I saw Ty at our local library late last year. He said the average wait for a donor kidney was about 3 1/2 years, but it looked like he had lucked out. Jessica had made it through a couple of rounds of testing to see if she was a donor match, and things were looking good.
A few days later, however, doctors called to tell Jessica her kidney function wasn’t strong enough for her to be a donor for her husband of 11 years.
“I called my mom, left work and cried all the way home,” Jessica said. “That was a tough night.”
Small towns have their problems. Isolation. Poverty. Lack of opportunity.
But when it comes to charity and giving and helping your neighbors, the vast majority of people in small towns understand if you want anything done around here, it’s all hands on deck.
When Natalie’s house burned all those years ago, donations came in from all over. A guy down the road even left his house and moved in with his parents so Natalie’s family would have a place to live while their home was rebuilt.
When Jessica put out a call for kidney donors for her husband on Facebook, many locals and lots of teachers in the district tried to see if they were a match. Nearly all were turned away.
“After Jessica didn’t get it — and there was someone else that we knew of that got about as far as Jessica was in the process and they didn’t get it — you get down a little bit,” Ty said. “It’s hard to remain patient.”
I wouldn’t say my wife sailed through the donor screening process, but there was no stopping her, especially after we visited Ty in December. He’d just had gall bladder surgery. He was still on dialysis. He was in terrible pain.
Because it was around Christmas, Natalie wanted to deliver some good news to him: It was looking more and more likely that she might be a match.
Sitting in a reclining chair in his living room, Ty writhed, grimaced, moaned and said, “It hurts to cry.”
On our way home in the car, Natalie broke down herself, saying over and over, “I’m doing this. I’m doing this. I’m doing this.”
The process to become a living donor, at least for my wife, went like this: She answered a questionnaire about her family and medical history. She monitored her blood pressure morning and evening every day for a week. She sent in a couple of vials of blood for testing, and she collected her urine for 24 hours.
In January, she spent a full day at the University of Kansas Hospital. They took more blood, did an abdominal scan, took a chest X-ray and an EKG. They told her they would be removing her left kidney, which we came to call “Lefty.”
She met with her own team: a pharmacist, a social worker, a financial consultant, a nutritionist, a nephrologist and a surgeon.
They did everything they could to talk her out of it.
While all of the costs of the surgery would be paid by Ty’s insurance and the transplant center, the team wanted to make sure she knew there would be no payment for the kidney donation. They interrogated her. How was she going to feel about the scarring on her belly? How would she feel if the transplant didn’t take? Research says a transplanted kidney from a living donor lasts, on average, just 15 to 20 years. And make no mistake, the doctors were removing an organ; it was going to hurt like hell.
“Most times you go in for tests, you’re worried about a mass or a tumor or something,” she said. “But this was different. This was confirming that I was healthy.”
By all accounts, she’s as fit as a woman her age could possibly be. That thing earlier about me remarrying? I’m not the one who should be asking the question.
When Natalie checked in to the hospital the morning of the surgery on March 21, the person at admissions asked her who was receiving her kidney.
“My principal,” Natalie said. “I teach second grade.”
“Like, your boss?” the rep said. “No way I’d give my boss my kidney. You better get a raise.”
Above the rep’s desk was a sign that read, “If you are nervous or scared, let’s pray on it. Prayers are free and always welcome.”
On the Sunday before the surgery, our pastor, Bill Gepford, called Natalie up in front of our church and asked the congregation to come and lay hands on her and pray for her and Ty and their families. It’s one of those touchy-feely moments that make us Methodists slightly uncomfortable.
Pastor Bill said that prayer was a humbling moment for him.
“I was super-excited for that sermon I was going to give that day,” he said. “I felt like it was one of the most powerful sermons I had ever given. And I remember finishing that prayer with people surrounding Natalie and knowing what she was about to do and feeling like, ‘Let’s just go home.’ What could I say that was better than that?”
Pastor Bill compared it to the Celtic Christianity idea of “thin spaces,” those places or moments where the barrier between earth and the idea of heaven is almost imperceptible. It’s this idea that there are places or things or moments where if you tried to define them, you’d kill them. Like the relationship with your kids. Like prayers. Like love.
“Some of us would say God’s presence is here, this is a holy moment,” he said. “You can explain it in other ways. It’s like every now and then we see hints of what humans were intended to become.”
I don’t know about any of that. All I know is my prayer the morning of the surgery was a little less beatific. It went something like, “God or The Universe or Whatever, if possible, could you see to it that a childless, dog-beating, awful piece of crap human being has a fatal motorcycle accident outside KU Hospital and turns out to be a perfect match for Ty so my wife would not have to go through with this?”
I’m not proud of it.
I’ve long believed there is nothing you can wear in a hospital waiting room that is appropriate. A tuxedo, a dress, a polo shirt and khakis, a new blouse. Something about the hospital brings everyone to the same level.
I could have been wrong. While Natalie was in surgery, I saw a guy wearing an Osmond Brothers sweatshirt from at least 30 years ago. It was the most natural thing to wear to a hospital as anything else I’ve seen.
Natalie and Ty went to the operating rooms at about the same time. It’s a highly synchronized and regimented procedure. The kidney is removed from the donor by one team of surgeons, then it’s quickly trucked across the way to another team that attaches it to the recipient.
After a couple of hours, someone from the hospital came out to tell Natalie’s mom and me that Natalie’s surgery went fine, all was well, we’d see her in a few hours, yadda, yadda, blah, blah.
About an hour later, Ty’s surgeon came out to talk to Jessica and his parents. Jessica invited my mother-in-law and me to hear what he had to say.
“The kidney is producing urine like a new baby boy,” the surgeon said. “It even got pee on my shoes.”
The whirlwind of emotions swirling around that tiny conference room is tough to explain.
There was Jessica, who was rejected as a donor and had to watch her husband suffer for more than a year. There was Ty’s mom and dad, who had seen two of their sons be afflicted by a genetic kidney disease and been helpless to do anything about it. There was my mother-in-law, who had only a few hours ago hugged and kissed her oldest daughter goodbye before her first surgery.
And there was me. I’d like to say I was an emotional rock but, well, how about those Royals?
Dr. Sean Kumer has been doing transplants at KU Hospital for about 10 years. The hospital performs about 25 living donations a year.
He said the idea that doctors first and foremost should do no harm is a tough balance with kidney donors.
“The donor is the only person coming into the hospital getting an operation that they don’t need,” he said. “They’re not going to be better, but we’re hoping they’re going to be the same. It’s still in the same vein as, ‘First, do no harm.’ Obviously, this operation causes pain, but we want it to be temporary.”
He said the human kidney is about the size of a fist and is pretty light — about a pound or so. But the real weight isn’t lost on him.
“When you’re being blunt, yeah, it’s a kidney,” he said. “It’s not squishy or anything. It has some solidity to it. But it’s more than that. It’s the hopes and the life of someone it has to be sewn into.”
About 2 p.m. every day the last a couple of weeks I’ve received a “Breaking Bad”-related text from my wife.
“He just let Jane die!”
“Skylar filed for divorce. #finally.”
“Planes crashing in mid-air!?! This show is crazy!”
“They killed Gale! U gotta do what U gotta to do protect the family.”
She’s probably the last person in the world to binge the show, and I’m so incredibly jealous. What I’d give to be able to watch it again for the very first time. Maybe even a kidney.
We visited Ty April 12 as he was home alone recovering — 22 days post surgery. The change in him is phenomenal. His skin is back to its normal color. He talks faster. His hearing, though, is no better, and he’ll have to get hearing aids. A small price.
“I just feel alive again,” he said.
Two days after the surgery, Ty made the long walk down the hall to see Natalie in her recovery room. They hugged. Ty said he was going to take good care of Lefty, and he was looking forward to maybe taking a trip to the Black Hills with his family or coaching his sons in baseball.
He’ll be out of work a while yet. Each morning he gets up and takes several medicines. He does a little housework, takes a walk in hopes of seeing someone to talk to. The boys come home after school, which livens things up a bit. Then he’ll take more pills before going to bed.
All the boxes of fluid and medical supplies are gone. Jessica has painted different splotches of color on their bedroom walls, planning to give a new look to the space and cover up any reminder of all the time they had to spend in there while Ty was suffering.
Ty looks back and says he was sicker longer than he thought. Maybe four years or more.
“Before I got diagnosed, I went pheasant hunting with my friend back in Hoxie, and walking just a little bit, I mean I was gassed,” he said. “Another warning sign I missed or I put my head in the ground about, to put it nicely.”
As for Natalie, it was slow going at first. Short walks up our street have become three or four laps around the park with me trying to keep up. She sometimes feels like someone is pressing a thumb on the lower left side of her back, and her abdominal muscles are sore. She’s not supposed to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk for six to eight weeks, but she’s returning to teach kids on Monday.
There were so many unknowns going in to this for Natalie and me and our kids. But so far so good.
I keep coming back to the moment before the operation that morning. I was trying to think of something to say that might reassure her. Just before she was wheeled off, I remembered a knee surgery I had, and how incredibly lonely I felt when the nurses took me away from her and to the operating room.
It was a struggle to get it out, but I managed to say, “Hey, you’re not alone.”
She looked at me and said, “No one is.”