False Alarm

It was about 6:30 in the morning, seven years ago today. I had already been up for half an hour. Renee, who is never voluntarily awake at 6:30 in the morning, was sound asleep. The cats were indifferent.

We were living in a small, 1000 square feet house in Southeast Raleigh in those days, a fixer-upper we had bought from a friend. The kitchen had concrete countertops, and I was leaning against them, my back to the window, sipping my coffee when, from the bedroom, I heard Renee’s phone ring with the ringtone from her cardioligist.

We had been waiting for it to ring for two months. When Renee was 12, she was diagnosed with a heart disease – the same one that killed her mother and grandmother and that, unless she eventually got a heart transplant, would kill her.

Heart transplants are funny things. They tell you over and over that they are not a cure for anything – rather, they are trading a condition they are unable to treat for a condition they know how to treat. So you don’t want to give someone a heart transplant too early – they need to be sick enough that they appreciate the increased quality of life they get from the transplant. On the other hand, if they are too sick, their body cannot handle the traumatic surgery that has to happen. And also, hearts are scarce, and so they want them to go where they can do the most good.

So, it’s a balancing act.

She came into the kitchen, hair askew and eyes wide.

“That was the call! They have a heart for me!”

They wanted us to be at the hospital in 90 minutes. They said there were still more tests to be done on the donor, but it looked good, and they wanted us there so we could do it quickly. From the time the donor dies, there is literally a countdown, and seconds are precious.

A flurry of activity ensues. She can’t eat, because surgery could happen in a matter of hours. We had been told to expect to stay in the hospital for two weeks – suddenly we are throwing things in a duffel bag, trying to guess at what we might need. She calls her family, and I call mine, forgetting that it’s an hour earlier in Mississippi and waking everyone up. And then, with our hearts pounding in our chest, we are on our way to Durham, in rush hour traffic.

The trip to the hospital would take 35 minutes unless it was rush hour, and then it took every bit of an hour and 15 minutes. Like the husband of a woman going into labor, I whipped in and out of traffic, took back roads, and cursed at the ineptitude of other, more placid, drivers. We pulled into the parking garage at 90 minutes on the nose.

The pre-op cubicle. Numerous questionnaires. Vitals taken. Blood tests. Peeing in a cup. Hospital gowns where modesty was impossible. The cardiologist comes by. The surgeon comes by. The nurses come by. We meet a cast of characters we do not know, and will never see again, but in whose hands we are placing her life. They are all remarkably calm. I am not. For us, this is the most important day of our life. For them, this is just Tuesday.

And then we wait.

And wait.

Someone tells us they are awaiting tests to come back from the donor. They won’t tell us anything about the donor – they never do. If the transplant is successful, they will, a year after the transplant, ask the donor if they want to know who you are, and if they do, the doctors will give them your information. And they might reach out to you. Or not.

And then, after we have been in the pre-op cubicle for 3 hours, they come in and tell us that the donor’s heart was nonviable, which means this is not going to happen and they tell her to get dressed. We can go home.

We drive home in shock. We had emotional whiplash, and as we come off the interstate in Raleigh we realize we are starving, so we stopped at Whole Foods to eat at the hot bar. We never did this, ever, because it was so expensive, and that we did it is a sign of how disoriented we were. We paid $40 for lunch and then went home, and I went into the office and she went back to bed and we tried to get on with our lives while we waited for the phone to ring again.