I am one of the few people each year who enters a hospital to undergo major surgery despite feeling perfectly healthy. I did it not to further improve my own health but to save someone else's life: on March 9, 2004, I donated a kidney to my father, Irwin.
Ten years earlier, after having been sick for many years, my father had been one of the world's first double-lung transplant recipients. In the decade afterward, he enjoyed supreme quality of life: hiking in Europe, skiing the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and spending time with family and friends. But as with many transplant recipients from that era, the anti-rejection medications he took were toxic to his kidneys. A second transplant, this time a kidney, offered the only potential for both life and quality of life.
It took me some time to
realize that regardless of
how unique, loving, and
selfless my act would be, it
would still involve risk,
pain, and recovery.
The process of deciding to donate a kidney is both extremely challenging and rewarding. No one who has not made such a decision can fully understand the range of emotions involved. Even though my family had lived within the community of organ transplant recipients for ten years, it never occurred to me that I would become a donor. My parents never pressured me to donate a kidney to my father, but I felt an inherent need to do so. I was torn, however, between wanting to help my dad and not wanting to put my wife and children at unnecessary risk of losing me.
As rewarding as it can be, undertaking such a significant act raises many questions. Would it be worth it even if my father does not benefit from the surgery? Should I risk my own health to save someone in his late sixties? Is this choice a burden or blessing?
Like many potential organ donors, I spoke with others who had gone through the procedure. I naively expected to research the risks, understand the rewards to my father, and enter the operating room fully at peace with my decision. But while I did undergo surgery confident in my decision, I was not fully prepared for the myriad hurdles, doubts, and anxieties I would have to overcome.
Everyone who undergoes surgery experiences some level of trepidation. However, I somehow expected the anxiety I suffered to be suppressed by the joy I felt for stepping forward to help my father. It took me some time to realize that regardless of how unique, loving, and selfless my act would be, it would still involve risk, pain, and recovery. I could not make that go away, but I could offset my anxiety by thinking about the tremendous gift I was giving my dad.
I had strong support from family and friends, but ultimately I had to travel the road to recovery on my own. While the immediate pain eventually wore off, I continued to live with the uncertainty of what the future would bring. I knew the odds of developing kidney problems were not increased by virtue of donating a kidney--and the joy and pride I felt for enhancing another's life made it all worthwhile.
My father lived only 385 days before succumbing to pneumonia unrelated to his kidney transplant. We had the opportunity to reflect on our surgeries the day before he died--a conversation I will cherish forever. Even knowing how briefly his life would be extended, we both said we would do it all over again. During his last year my father enjoyed life anew and he formed a very special bond with his only grandson at the time, my two-year-old son, Andrew. I am thankful I had the ability to make the last year of his life one filled with joy and freedom rather than pain and suffering.
As is often the case, I am a
better person for having
overcome such a
My journey was made even more profound by the fact that my second son, Spencer, was born just forty hours before my dad passed away. I am just now beginning to understand the significance of losing one life while gaining another at nearly the same moment. My family and I have experienced the deepest sorrow and the most tremendous joy within hours of each other.
As I now reflect on these past two years, I realize how interrelated these events are and what a message they send for all of us. I will always live with the peace of knowing I chose action over inaction and courage over fear to enrich the life of someone who first gave it to me. Instead of forever regretting that I stood idle while his health failed and questioning whether he would have lived a longer and better life, I know with certainty that he lived the fullest life he could. I look back knowing I did everything I could to help my dad.
I realize the decision I made would not be right for everyone. I cannot recommend organ donation to everyone who is presented with the decision. I can, however, advise those faced with any decision of comparable gravity to do what's truly right for them and to be honest to themselves. Choices like these weigh heavily long afterwards. The best measure of whether a chosen action was correct is whether one would make the same decision again in retrospect.
We all take risks in our lives, and each of us faces our own physical and mental challenges. As is often the case, I am a better person for having overcome such a tremendous challenge. I grew as a person and learned a lot about others as well. I have come to the realization that life is not measured in years. Rather, it is gauged by the laughs, loves, and experiences gained during that time. Quality is indeed more important than quantity.
Most importantly, the experience taught me lessons I use in all aspects of my life. Being an organ donor is now part of my identity. My experience teaches lessons to each generation of my family. From my father I learned how rewarding giving back to others can be. To my children I hope to teach the lesson that putting someone else's needs before their own enriches their lives as well. Like my father did, I live life with no regrets.
Brad Kornfeld leads a retail development, leasing, management, and consulting firm in Denver, Colorado where he lives with his wife, Lisa, and their children, Eliza, Andrew, and Spencer. He now serves on the board of directors of Donor Alliance, the organ procurement organization for Colorado and Wyoming.