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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 6-3-22 – The Gift of Life

The measure of life is not its duration but its donation.” -Peter Marshall

In this time we live in, there seems to be so much senseless loss, division and hate. We need to dig a little deeper and celebrate the inherent decency and generosity of people. One of the finest examples of how good people can be is when they chose to donate a part of themselves to save another. While this is a family story of gratitude below, through the process we met strangers who donated a kidney, part of their liver or bone marrow to a stranger simply because they could. They felt it was important to them to step up and help another human in this way. Humans have the capacity to do such selfless things. We cannot forget that it is that capacity that what we need to hold up in times of darkness.

I have never donated an organ, although I would certainly consider doing so. Donating is in my blood, so to speak. I have been a blood donor for around 35 years. Blood donation is a small thing I can do to help another person. Organ donation is not entirely like blood donation. There are no milk and cookies Post Op. It is a huge process, not without significant risks. But organ donation provides an opportunity to give another human being the most valuable gift possible, more time on earth to spend with family and friends. I have seen the entire donor process up close and personal. Julie, my beautiful, sweet, and generous wife, donated a kidney to her dad. He is gone now, but her kidney that she gave to him in October 2006 bought him 11 extra years on earth. This is a matter of deep gratitude for us.

My father-in-law was “the Dude.” I am pretty sure I gave him that nickname. It stuck. He was a great guy. Back when Julie and I started living together, one night we visited the family home. Afterwards I found her old Barbie Camper in the back seat of my car. The dude had an awesome sense of humor. He said with a straight face that he had a theory about kids. He said they were like weeds. It was important to get all the roots out or they would just keep coming back. He said that the Barbie Camper from her childhood needed to go, or she might end up living in the basement again. It was hilarious because the love between father and daughter was even then unconditional. Julie and that Barbie Camper stayed with me, at least until a yard sale years later when that plastic camper left us. Later in life, he paid perhaps the highest compliment a father-in-law could to a son in law when he said I was like a son to him.

Over time, the dude was diagnosed with bilateral renal cell carcinoma. He had both kidneys removed and required dialysis to survive. He has lots of other medical complications but faced it all with grace. He found joy in life despite his plight. His daughters were everything to him. As a career, he had been a civil engineer. His biggest job was as project manager of the steel erection of One Liberty Place in Philadelphia. We consider it the Dude Memorial Building. He used his engineer skills to quite literally stay alive. He had these intricate excel spreadsheets with all his medical test values, medications, and procedures on it. His doctors often deferred to him as he could see nuances in his own medical care they missed because he tracked it like an engineer. He was considered a medical miracle for all he had survived through, which I think he did through his sheer determination to spend more time with his family. That was the dude.

Eventually, the dude needed a transplant. He needed a kidney or he would die. I can recall when Julie was on the phone with her dad and she heard the news. She did not even take a breath before telling her father that she wanted to be his living donor. She hung up that phone and started the process. Because his was a complicated case, he had to have it done at the University of Pittsburgh Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute, which is the leading transplant center in the world. We drove across PA a few times for tests and interviews. At one point, he was removed from candidacy because of a diagnosis error related to a cytological report. It was one of those life coincidences that Julie was a cytotechnologists. She immediately understood what the error was and contacted the diagnosing physician who agreed with her and reversed his report, putting the dude back on the candidate list. She was her father’s living angel on earth.

Two days before the transplant, we all went out to dinner at the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline. We toasted to family as the sun set. Then the big day. It was a long one. Julie and I got to the hospital early in the morning, the dude had been admitted the night before. She said that after they prepped her, Julie and her dad held hands as they lay on their gurneys pre-op. The whole Miller family waited in this hot, still waiting room all day long. Late in the day, I was permitted to see Julie, she was OK, but groggy. She looked like a person who just had an organ removed. Just before midnight, the staff let me see the Dude. His skin was pink and looked like a man with a new lease on life. I collapsed in sleep, relieved that the outcome was good after nearly a 24-hour day of waiting and worrying.

In recovery, the Dude showed his humor by telling people that he knew then why he had kids, “so he could harvest their organs.” He and Julie joked that it had all been so much fun, they should do it again. He lived 11 more years and we had so many great times, thanks to Julie. A year later we were all invited to this amazing UPMC annual transplant dinner and sat with a few hundred donors and recipients, including this CBS reporter and her son Peter who thanks to her liver donation, is now a healthy 17 year old. That night was a life highlight, as I witnessed how selfless people can be.

I am grateful for Julie’s generous gift of life and for everyone else out there who becomes a donor, as well as the medical professionals who make it all possible. If you are interested in learning more about being a living Kidney Donor, check out the National Kidney Foundation. If you are interested in being a registered organ donor on your driver’s license here in PA, check out this DMV link. There are a whole lot of people in the world filled with gratitude today because someone donated the gift of life to them. If you are a living donor or have registered to be a donor on your driver’s license THANK YOU! I am grateful to you. You are a hero.

What are you grateful for today?

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