My transplant surgeon, Dr. Robert Montgomery, described me as someone who was depersonalized by my illness. I was fortunate to learn priceless thoughts and information from my transplant surgeon when the author of my biography, Dennis McCloskey, interviewed Dr. Montgomery for my biography in 2007. I was present in the room as the world-renowned surgeon addressed his comments to me:
“You had lost most of your hair, and you had a moon face as a result of a lot of excess fluid,” Dr. Montgomery explained. “You were featureless, and I know why: you were just so tired of people hurting you, poking and prodding you, and sticking needles in you. Whenever someone came near, you reacted and regressed. You were one of the youngest PKD patients I had ever seen and you were as sick as anyone I had ever seen with kidney trouble.” He continued, “You did not respond or engage, but there was something from within you, something shining that is still present as I look at you now; some light that I picked up on. The light was there, but everything else had been stripped away by illness. I am a very involved surgeon, but I was drawn into that drama and I got very much more involved in your case. In the end, we transplanted you in a condition that I normally wouldn’t.”
To this day, it still amazes me to read this as these words came from the Associate Professor of Surgery, Director of Incompatible Kidney Transplant Program, Chief of the Division of Transplantation, and Director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center at the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital.
As I write this today, more than 10 years after receiving the gift of life, I am full of emotion and in awe at how my kidney transplant not only saved my life but it transformed that girl once depersonalized by her illness into the strong healthy woman I am today. I was too sick to be put on the transplant waiting list but needed a kidney to survive. I was so ill that I don’t remember all the details but I know that several generous individuals stepped forward and offered to donate their kidney. Some were people from my dad’s work; one was a friend from high school; and another was a high school friend’s mother. In my time of dire need, the kidneys of both the friend and the friend’s mother were ideal matches.
My donor’s name is Sally Robertson. I know everyone’s donor is an angel, but Sally is truly angelic. She is a woman of strong faith, of tall stature, quiet beauty, and has the most calming voice I have ever heard. Sally is gorgeous with the sweetest soul. She has the prettiest hair, kindest eyes, a heart of gold, and a smile that melts my heart. I have known her since I was in 8th grade when I became friends with her daughter, Emily. It is amazing to think my second chance at life was right before me for so many years. I am very thankful to have a living donor who I can stay in touch with. Sally lives in Pennsylvania and I live in California. Tears fill my eyes as I think of what I miss the most: her hugs. She gives the best hugs and would always whisper words of love and encouragement as she held me tight. I always wondered why would a married woman, with a full-time job, and five children, choose to donate her kidney with no hesitation.
I was fortunate to learn the answer when the author of my biography, Dennis, interviewed Sally in September 2007. Sally’s family is important to her and so is her Christianity. Sally said, “I am a Christian and that sums up who and what I am. He (God) is the reason I gave my kidney to Valen. I knew she was a very sick young woman and if there was anything I could do to help her, I would. Jesus is my savior. Without him I am nothing. He has given me hope and peace beyond any understanding, and forgiveness like I don’t deserve. He loves me unconditionally, in spite of myself. I wanted Valen to have a kidney and for her to know unconditional love and have her know the Lord loves her so much.”
During this once in a lifetime interview, Sally looked at me and said, “He never left you, Valen. We live in a broken world, in a world where bad things happen and we have terrible illnesses and diseases and people are dying and people are hurting and they may not fully understand it; but God never leaves us. He never forsakes us. He is always there and He wants us to turn to Him. I was just the instrument for God to love Valen and give her a hope and future. There was never a condition for this kidney, Valen. This was a gift to you. You did not have to do or say anything to earn it, because we cannot earn God’s love. It’s a totally free gift.”
To this day, her words full of love, faith and grace overwhelm me. My heart feels tight and tears stream down my face and it is hard to find the words to share my tremendous appreciation to be alive today. To be so lucky to be shown His unconditional love from Sally, to feel Sally’s unconditional love, my parents’ and Noah’s unconditional love. I wipe the tears from my cheeks and off my keyboard as I pray for those of you out there waiting for a transplant who I hope will be as fortunate as me and be given a second chance at life.
In honor of Donate Life Month I want to honor and thank Sally. I want to thank every organ donor out there. I want to thank all of you who have signed up to be organ donors. I want Sally to know that I live every day to make her proud of the decision that she made to give me her kidney. I hope that how I live my life shows everyone the miracle of transplantation. It is important to me to show donors how grateful recipients are and that their ‘gift’ is life-changing. Sally, thank you for giving me the opportunity to teach, to love and to live the beautiful life you have so graciously given me. It is an honor to carry a piece of you with me every day.