Transplant Anniversaries Acknowledge Trauma and Triumph
Transplant anniversaries are hard for me. And they’re wonderful. They’re sad, then great again. Up, down, and all around seems to be the cycle of my emotions.
These anniversaries affect my body, too. It’s as if I’m reliving the days leading up to my transplant all over again.
I turned three years old on Aug. 18, a day I fondly refer to as my “second birthday.” It is the day my life began again. The day I was given a second chance at life. The day I was able to live in an entirely new way.
Time is an interesting phenomenon. It feels as though I was transplanted only yesterday. On the other hand, it also feels like a lifetime ago that I had my life-saving surgery. It’s nearly impossible to remember what life was like before I had my new lungs.
The transition to believing my new lungs actually are mine has been challenging. Coming to terms with the fact that my own lungs died, and that I needed new ones, involves unfathomable grief that is beyond explanation. No one prepared me for how to lose my lungs with grace.
And Western medicine can be so cold and callous, almost negating the inner workings of our souls. Transplants involve more than just switching out failing organs for functioning ones — it’s much more profound than that.
I lost a part of me the day I was transplanted. The pair of vital organs that breathed life into me for 30 years was removed from my body. The lungs that worked so hard to breathe through thick mucus, respiratory infections, and scarring had completed their job. They breathed as long as they could, grew tired, and had to take up their final resting place. It was time.
I often refer to them as someone else’s lungs because sometimes breathing strongly doesn’t feel real. I am breathing with another person’s lungs inside my body. I no longer require daily nebulizer treatments, airway clearance, or mucus blasting techniques. I don’t have to think about every breath anymore, or calculate how much gas I have left in my energy tank for the day.
My life is so completely different following the switch of a pair of lungs. How is that even possible? It doesn’t make sense! I went to sleep with my lungs, and woke up with a new pair.
In the days leading up to my “lungiversary,” my mind and body change. I can feel my old, estranged friend anxiety creeping in, slowly taking over my thoughts. As I obsess over every little twinge my body feels, I become anxious that something is wrong.
Sensations wash over me, including chest tightness, backaches, and muscle spasms. These are familiar, yet foreign.
They are familiar because my body remembers feeling this way every day for years prior to my transplant. They are foreign because I haven’t felt them for three years. Breathing a whole new way has been a mind game as I let go of habits I had before I received new lungs.
Developing a new relationship with this day has been a continual process. I had to connect in my mind the trauma I’ve experienced with the triumph; they had to be friends rather than foes. These two strong experiences somehow had to coexist in the corners of my mind.
Honoring the past was part of the process. I reflected on what I’ve been through. I grieved the life I had before transplant. I thought about my donor and prayed for their family. I wondered what they were experiencing, and how this anniversary hits them. I also grieved this day for them because I feel it so deeply in a completely different way. Survivor’s guilt is a real thing.
I also decided to create new memories. As it turns out, difficult emotions can exist alongside positive ones. So, I paddled my kayak down a river and experienced joy. Three years ago, I couldn’t have done this by myself. It takes another level of strength to lift a kayak above my head, strap it to the roof of my car, and carry it to the river’s edge.
Transplant anniversaries can be sad and celebratory at the same time. Learning to manage emotions simultaneously is a difficult dance. I’m confident that leaning into the discomfort has opened my heart to feeling both emotions deeply.
I’m grateful to have a new birthday to rejoice in, and I welcome family and friends who make this day special by celebrating that I’m still here. I’m still alive. And that will always be my saving grace.
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