We all breathed heavily.
Some, because shallow breaths didn’t cut it anymore, courtesy of advanced lung conditions: ideopathic pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. Diseases with enough syllables to leave anyone gasping.
Others, simply because we could. Because we’d spent decades or years or months in a slow-burn suffocation. But someone else died and so we lived. We breathe deep breaths of gratitude.
An assemblage of pre- and post-transplant patients from Stanford Medical — except me. Many have vertical incision scars (marks of Stanford) poking out from the collar of their shirts. The horizontal symbol of UCSF Medical, shimmery purple scar from pit to pit, is hidden beneath my flannel.
A couple patients’ incisions are not yet scars — they have the telltale signs of weeks-fresh surgery. Eyes wide despite the bags sagging them down, legs frantically tapping out Morse code.
“They’re still drugged up,” I type out on my phone and show Kathleen beside me.
I remember the feeling. That I was invincible and life could be nothing less sweet than peaches and cream from thereon.
Me, five days post-surgery: “This honestly isn't as hard as I expected. Kind of easy.”
Nurse, filling a syringe with heparin: “Patients often say that. At first.”
And then the fentanyl withdrawals hit me. Kathleen once wrote that she doesn’t congratulate people on their transplants. That she knows they still have a long way to go.
We’d met at a coffee shop in Haight-Ashbury a few days after I left the hospital in February. We’d first started talking when I commented on her blog a few months before. She got her heart-lung transplant after kicking back at pulmonary hypertension most of her life.
Kathleen typed on her phone about the difficulty ahead and I (still deaf at the time) tried to act chill about it. Act like I had a mind wrapped in iron defenses, no problems with my recovery. Around 3 a.m. that night, I swaddled my feeble body in thick blankets and sobbed. Gazed with heartbreak at the bottle of oxy. Recalled all the news stories about middle-class white men getting hooked on opioid
Days later, Kathleen took me on my first “hike” post-transplant. My legs had bundles of lead strapped to them, I swear it. But we made it a good way up. The San Franciscan Victorian-style apartments below looked noticeably smaller and that was good enough for me. She told me we would only climb higher later on.
Kathleen was right. Recovery was tough. And I now realize her withholding of congratulations was partly what allowed me to open up to her later about my struggles. I was fearful of people thinking I took the gift of new lungs for granted if I complained. I’d already had people imply I shouldn’t be anything but happy after getting such a blessing.
But Kathleen only ever gave me the straight-up. She understood that transplanted organs come at terrible prices: love affairs with opioids, crises of identity, and tear-blood-sweat-stained sheets.
And so we talked about death and psychosis and fear of dreaming. We talked about what others simply didn’t want to (or couldn’t). And we breathed heavily with each other on our hikes.
We are surrounded at Stanford Medical by many who take the same pills at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. sharp. Who wear masks to protect fragile immune systems. Who don’t eat sushi or rare steak or pomegranate.
All of us, breathing heavily. Deeply and beautifully.
Two weeks later, I spent time with Kathleen again. We climbed 70 floors’ worth of height to reach the tip-top of Tank Hill. I gazed at UCSF below me, at the cotton candy-colored sky evaporating into dusk. Kathleen had said those many months ago on our first hike that there would be more to come. That it would only get easier. As usual, she was correct.
The next day, we'd meet other heart and lung transplant patients for a photo shoot of our scars. Days later, we'd learn prominent figures in the transplant community passed away. Kathleen would make me swear to live forever. I swore it, but we now both know exactly what we signed up for when we accepted those organic gifts. Like she said almost a year ago, it's a rough journey.
But atop Tank Hill, in that ethereal yet ephemeral atmosphere, I did feel invincible again (sans painkillers).