A Donation of Life from Alaska

About two weeks into my transplant surgery rotation in Seattle, I boarded a small jet plane and took off to Alaska to retrieve kidneys for an organ donation.  I was elated.  Having the opportunity to do this was one of the reasons I wanted to do this rotation at the University of Washington.  I remember feeling nervous as we were taking off because I had never been on a plane so small but as soon as we hit cruising altitude I just sat back and enjoyed the amazing views of the Pacific Northwest.  Once the captain let us know that we were close I looked out the window to see massive, snow covered mountains peaking over the clouds.  I couldn’t stop taking photos with my phone.  When we landed, I was taken aback by the landscape of Anchorage; everywhere I turned there was green land surrounding lakes with the backdrop of jagged mountains in the distance.

Even though the scenery was beautiful, I quickly focused back in on the task at hand, one that was bittersweet.  We were told late the day before that a young man had passed away in Alaska and his family had agreed upon organ donation.  As one could imagine, whenever there is a possible organ available, a lot of background research needs to be done and it needs to be done quickly.   There are so many factors that come into play when transplant surgeons decide whether or not a particular organ could be a good fit for their patients: The cause of death, medical history, blood type, the cross reactivity of immune systems, where the organ is, how long will it take to retrieve the organs, and how long it will take the recipient to make it to the hospital are a few of the considerations.

We arrived at the hospital and went straight to the operating room.  By this time, I had started to get the routine of procurements down.  They had people there to set up all the preservative fluids and get ice ready to keep the organ as cold as possible, and then there were the technicians with years of transplant experience who would essentially look at all the organs once the body was opened and could tell whether or not the organs would be viable once transplanted.  It was all quite impressive.  Once the patient arrived, the organization that arranges the procurements always takes a moment of silence before the procedure begins to honor and thank the person who is donating their organs to save a life.  It was always an emotional moment for me whenever I went to the procurements.

The procedure went well; the organs were harvested, and before I knew it we were headed to the airport to fly back to Seattle.  The flight back took about two hours and the plane ride gave me time to reflect on everything that just happened.  When we got back, I got to sleep for about three hours while the OR and the recipient were prepped.  One of the kidneys went to the children’s hospital to save a child, and the other kidney came to the UW hospital where I saw it transplanted into a woman who had end stage renal disease secondary to hypertension.  It was truly amazing to see the whole process from beginning to end.

Transplant surgery is bittersweet.  At the end of the day, you are giving at least one person and often times multiple people another chance at life, but in order for this to happen, there is always a life lost.  For me, it was always a battle between these two emotions.  I always thought about how on one end, there is a family devastated over the loss of a loved one, and then on the other, there is a family who is joyful and relieved because their loved one will go on to lead a healthy and longer life because of this gift.   The only way that I made sense of it all was to remember that for each of us our time to pass will come and although it is sad, there is the opportunity to give another human being a second chance at life, and that is quite remarkable.

What are your thoughts about this topic?