Caitlin Dwyer | Longreads | July 2019 | 20 minutes (5,624 words)

It was late afternoon in Virginia, humid but not too hot. The Hampton River rippled with a light breeze, lifting skirts and blowing ties. Guests sipped their beer and swayed a little — the way one does when watching a slow dance, unconsciously mimicking the movement of other bodies — as Chris Nalley led his mom on the floor. His bride stood nearby, red-gold curls framing her face, watching her new husband with a smile. Chris looked poised, in control of the dance, as a man looks when a long-awaited moment arrives and he steps confidently into its shape. A moment later his mom stepped away, and he gestured toward another woman standing nearby, a blonde in her 40s.

“Who’s that?” I asked my husband, who grew up with the bride.

“It’s his donor mom,” he whispered back.

Vicky West stepped into Nalley’s arms and laid her ear to his chest. Inside she could hear Nalley’s breath. The warm Virginia air moved through two lungs donated by a boy named Hans, who died of a brain aneurysm at age 20. West’s son’s lungs.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if I have a breakdown in the middle of the dance floor?’” West recalls. She had brought her sister and her best friend to the reception to help her prepare for the emotional moment. “I’m never going to dance at my son’s wedding, and he’s my only child. They gave me something that I never thought that I would get.”

West and Nalley didn’t know each other when Hans died. For years after his organs arrived at the University of Virginia, on ice, to be inserted into Nalley’s body, they didn’t even know each others’ names. But over time, they’ve developed a relationship that is both tentative and incredibly tender. They consider each other family, but each of them worries about putting pressure on the other person to have a relationship. West thinks of Nalley as her own child in many ways, but she knows he has a life, a marriage, his own separate identity. Nalley struggles with survivor’s guilt, knowing that Hans died and he is here. He refers to the lungs as not his own, as if they were foreign objects inserted into his body, which medically, in some ways, they are. Both Nalley and West are passionate about organ, tissue, and eye donation and the gift of connection and continuation it provides — even as it accompanies, inevitably, great grief.

* * *

“The science behind how I have these lungs, and they’re not mine, and they’re hooked up like you change a pipe under the sink — you know, switch the plumbing out — is just amazing,” says Nalley. As the recipient of two separate lung transplants, most recently from West’s son, Nalley has a healthy awe for modern medicine.

Complex medical procedures can seem to the layperson almost magical. We can snip out someone’s heart, put it into someone else’s body, and it starts beating. We can graft tissue and replace corneas. We can sustain heartbeats and blood pressure using complex machines, which loop the blood out of the body, oxygenate it, and feed it back in. These procedures come with great risk, but at least they are possible. For most of human history, the things that killed us just killed us. Now, with the help of machines, doctors, and humans who give pieces of their bodies to complete strangers in death, we can live longer, healthier lives. As modern people, we exist not only as ourselves any longer, but as the interconnections between various humans and technologies.

This is true for most people who have faced a medical crisis and relied on a network of humans and machines to save them. In such a crisis, the boundaries of identity become more permeable and the sense of self expands. Organ donation brings this node of connections, this strange, nebulous feeling of trust and gratitude, into sharp focus because of the physicality of the connection: Those who have received a donation literally carry the DNA of the other person inside them. Sometimes recipients also become invested in relationships that nurture, honor, and remember the donor, and they find a relationship with the donor’s family and identity. Communicating can help all sides make sense of a complex, emotionally challenging situation. In some cases, the recipient never learns about the donor and comes to accept these new body parts as their own, creating a new sense of wholeness as they heal.

It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of cutting someone’s lungs out and surgically implanting them in someone else’s body would have been absurd. Just 175 years ago, doctors used ether anesthesia for the first time. The first successful kidney transplant was only 65 years ago. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the first successful lung transplants took place. In 1986, the date of the first successful double-lung transplant, Chris Nalley was 6 years old.

* * *

I was 17 years old when my parents announced that we were going on a 10-day silent Buddhist meditation retreat. Despite initial doubts, I ended up enjoying it: long quiet walks around the UC San Diego campus, tasty vegetarian meals, morning meditations rung in by a bell. I especially remember our teacher. At the time, I thought of him as a brown-robed, slow-talking old man. After almost two decades of meditation practice, I now know him as Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Zen teacher and peace activist.

Toward the end of the retreat, he sat onstage in front of a line of candles. Cupping one hand to protect the flame, he lit a candle, then blew out the match. He used the first candle to light a second. He used the second candle to light a third. And so on. Then he gestured to the last candle and asked us whether the flame in this final candle was the same flame that had lit the match.

As modern people, we exist not only as ourselves any longer, but as the interconnections between various humans and technologies.

I didn’t understand that demonstration until many years later, when I became a mom. At one day old, my son was hooked up to a ventilator, unable to breathe on his own, heavily sedated with morphine. The doctors said he had holes in his lungs, and they suspected brain damage as a result of oxygen deprivation during labor. As a newborn, my son was not eligible for a transplant. We could only watch and wait to see if his lungs healed.

Standing over his crib, my hand on his softly moving chest, I understood how the self could transfer into another body and also be separate. This tiny creature had been inside me less than a day ago, and now struggled to breathe on his own. He still felt like a part of my body that had been recently extracted on an operating table. I had a thick, puffy scar across my abdomen where they’d pulled him out, and I could see the dimpled chin he’d inherited from me, the same chin I had inherited from my father, beneath all the plastic tubing.

“We think of our body as our self or belonging to our self. We think of our body as me or mine. But if you look deeply, you see that your body is also the body of your ancestors, of your parents, of your children, and of their children. So it is not a ‘me’; it is not a ‘mine,’” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Lion’s Roar, a Buddhist magazine. “Your body is full of everything else — limitless non-body elements — except one thing: a separate existence.”

Buddhists call this lack of separateness “no-self.” It’s not a denial of our existence, but the acknowledgment that we exist only in relationship, in community, in continuation. In my family’s experience with the health care system, I saw how fragile our bodies are, how quickly they can come to rely on others for survival. When my son got sick, I stopped seeing myself as an isolated individual, a person who makes individual choices and suffers individual consequences. Instead, I saw the ways in which bodies are made up of both personal characteristics and the myriad influences of their environment, carrying with them the DNA, the traumas, the bacteria, the gifts and generosities of other people. We carry our parents, but also our doctors, nurses, teachers, organ donors: All these people flicker in us, tiny, guttering lights shielded from the wind by cupped hands.

* * *

The last thing Nalley remembered, it was January. He’d been arguing with the doctor. He needed an antibiotic for pneumonia, but as a manager for a busy shoe store, he had used up his limited days off and had to get back to work. He remembered getting angry at being detained. He remembered yelling a little.

Now as he looked out the hospital window, unable to move, heart racing, he saw leaves on the trees. It was May.

Nalley panicked. He had been asleep for five months. His heart rate and blood pressure shot up, and the staff surrounded him, trying to calm him down. They gave him something and he slipped back into sleep.

They woke him a few times, until, gradually, he understood what had happened. Admitted to the hospital in January 2005 with pneumonia, Nalley had become angry when the doctor told him he would be there at least a week. “I just wanted to go home and go back to work the next day,” he says. Eventually, he had fallen unconscious from lack of oxygen. He was intubated, given a tracheotomy, and placed in a medically induced coma for months while his lungs fought off the infection.

Nalley had been in the hospital a lot. He was born with cystic fibrosis, a chronic, progressive disease that gradually impairs lung function. The disease typically worsens in late adolescence and early adulthood, just as a person’s identity begins to crystallize. Infections like pneumonia become more common, leading to long-term antibiotic use and complications. While treatments are available, there is no cure.

When he had learned to walk and eat again after months of muscle atrophy, Nalley went home, still dependent on supplemental oxygen. Anytime he went outside, he carried portable oxygen tanks with him. “So much oxygen would flow out of the tank that it would burn your nose,” Nalley recalls.

Running errands became a negotiation of time versus liters. He could carry smaller oxygen tanks, each of which lasted about four hours, so he had to think ahead: If he got caught in traffic and ran out of air, he could get sick from oxygen deprivation. “I felt like an astronaut,” he says.

Being in his early 20s, all he wanted was to go to bars, hang out with friends, and flirt with girls. Instead, for a year and a half, his day-to-day life became a dull routine of television, computers, and forced social interaction. As his lung function declined further, doctors offered Nalley an opportunity: He could get on the list for a lung transplant.

* * *

When a potential organ or tissue donor dies, several teams kick into immediate action. For a case like Nalley’s, there are two surgeries: the donor and the recipient. First, the donor’s lungs are removed, a process that involves stapling shut the major vein and artery that take blood to and from the lungs, as well as closing off the bronchus, the main passage through which air passes. The organs are cut out, treated with blood thinners and preservation solutions, checked to make sure they don’t have too much fluid or any signs of infection, and kept cool.

“You want to be ready to sew the lung very close to the time it arrives,” explains Frederick Tibayan, a surgeon who heads the advanced heart failure and transplant program at Oregon Health and Science University. That’s because “when the lung or lungs have been removed from the donor’s body, it’s no longer being perfused with blood that is giving it nutrients and keeping that organ alive.” So while the lungs make their way to the recipient, possibly from another hospital or city or even state, in haste, another team of surgeons preps the recipient.

It’s a “highly coordinated dance,” says Sarah Kilbourne, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia who works on Nalley’s care team. A nationwide computer program matches organs by blood type to the highest-priority recipient waiting for a donation. This happened in 2006, and again in 2013, when Kilbourne got a telephone call saying there was a lung available for Nalley. Both times, Nalley got to the hospital as fast as possible. In preparation for a potential procedure, he’d been trying to gain weight, doing physical therapy several times a day on his failing lungs, and keeping himself as healthy as possible for major surgery.

“I was gung-ho, let’s get this thing over with,” Nalley remembers of the first surgery. “In pre-op my parents were crying and I was, like, so ready to have this transplant. I was at the bottom of the barrel of life. Anything would have been better. Half a lung, one lung, a whole lung. Anything.”

Complex medical procedures can seem to the layperson almost magical. We can snip out someone’s heart, put it into someone else’s body, and it starts beating.

Nalley was having a bilateral transplant, which meant both lungs would be taken out. In this situation, the surgeons either do a clamshell incision, which involves slicing up the sides of the body and across the breastbone, or they simply divide the breastbone and open up the torso. They take out the worse-functioning lung first, again by stapling shut the bronchus and blood vessels and removing the organ, then sewing in the donated organ. “This is obviously stressful for the patient because they’re working on one lung. The heart is having to pump all the blood through one lung and having to work harder,” explains Tibayan. In around 25 percent of cases, the patient has to go on cardiopulmonary bypass, a machine that helps the heart handle the stress. Once the second lung is sewn in, the goal is to get the patient up and moving as fast as possible, to strengthen the heart and get the lungs working on their own.

“I tell people that after the first transplant, that first breath I took was the longest, deepest breath I’d ever taken in my life, and it wasn’t even … it was someone else’s lungs that were doing all the work,” says Nalley. He knew that a stranger’s body had been joined with his, letting him take these deep breaths. Generally, donors’ names and identities are kept anonymous. Nevertheless, the sense of breathing as or with someone else hits home for Nalley. “It messes with your mind, similar to thinking about how small we are in the universe. That the universe is so vast and then you think, there’s this part of me that’s not me … but I’m alive because of it.”

* * *

When Tibayan mentioned to me using a form of cardiopulmonary bypass called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, in transplant surgery, I remembered what it looked like. The ruby blood in thick tubes. The sound of the nurses banging their fists against the machine to prevent clots. The way the patient is sometimes drugged up to prevent him from moving, so that the canula feeding directly into his carotid will not jostle and detach.

My son was on ECMO for 10 days. He was kept alive effectively as a cyborg, his vitals inextricably linked to the machine that kept him breathing — and to the nurses who monitored the blood as it circulated out of his body, and the doctors who checked for air leaking into his chest cavity. I remember the strange attachment to the machines that were keeping him alive, a simultaneous revulsion and tenderness for the care he received. Beside the high-tech instruments in the room, a small electric candle flickered in the window, near the cot where I or my husband slept each night. I had never imagined that parenthood would begin mostly as a vigil.

“Impermanence means being transformed at every moment. This is reality. And since there is nothing unchanging, how can there be a permanent self, a separate self?” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. “So what permanent thing is there which we can call a self?”

The son I have today exists as the confluence of machines and humans. Ten years earlier, the ECMO technologies and caregiver training wouldn’t have been in place to save him. In 2017, they were. He may not be attached to those devices any longer, but they resonate in him with every breath he takes. Most people who have gone through a major medical event understand that we emerge back into health connected to our caregivers and to the expansive web of lifesaving practices that make up modern medicine. My son is not a machine, but he is alive because of them.

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* * *

“I thought of my donor as a guardian angel type of figure,” says Katy Portell.

When she was 4 years old, Portell received donated tissue to repair a faulty valve in her heart. She grew up aware of her heart condition, but not very engaged with her donor. He was a mysterious figure, rather abstract. As she grew up and became more involved in organ donation advocacy, she realized a hard moment was coming: “I knew that I would have to be ready to face the reality that there was a person on the other side whose life was cut short, who was meant for something more.”

Portell, who is the organ donation ambassador coordinator for NHS Blood and Transplant in the United Kingdom, took a series of extraordinary steps to discover her donor’s identity, more than 20 years after the tissue transplant. First, she had to find her organ procurement organization (OPO), a group that acts as a bridge between the recipient and donor hospitals. Because it had been so long, she had to get in touch with the surgeon who had done her transplant many years before. Once she found the OPO, she wrote a letter, using guidelines from a transplant coordinator; the letter was scrubbed of identifying information and sent to the OPO, who reached out to the donor family: Would they be willing to receive correspondence?

When she received a letter, she couldn’t wait to open it. Photos of a young boy spilled out of the envelope. “That was the moment when everything became very, very real, because suddenly there was a real person who had died,” says Portell. “That was devastating.”

Her donor was P.J., an 8-year-old who had been hit by a car while riding his bike. “He loved Indiana Jones, was obsessed with secret codes, and wanted to be a jet pilot or archaeologist when he grew up,” says Portell. He also made an extraordinary choice; he had told his mother he wanted to be a donor in several conversations during his life. Portell’s sense of guilt and gratitude was crushing.

She corresponded with P.J.’s family for about six months before she felt ready to meet. “I had a fear that was, frankly: Will they like me?” It’s a strange pressure, to carry a piece of someone’s son’s heart in your body. She had to carry P.J., too. She had to channel his spirit, and to live in a way that felt worthy of his choice to donate.

She thinks of him now like a big brother. When Portell applied for her current job, she emerged from an interview and felt confident about her chances. She walked the streets of London imagining P.J. walking beside her — not as a child, but as a man. She imagined high-fiving him. “I was strutting down the sidewalk and saying, ‘We did it,’” she says. “Nothing I do is without him.”

Portell met P.J.’s parents on New Year’s Eve 2016. Their first meeting was captured on video. It’s impossible to watch without crying: Portell running into the arms of P.J.’s mother, burying her head in her neck. They sit together, laughing, weeping, sharing photos. “You have fulfilled my child’s dreams,” P.J.’s mother says to Portell. “How could we be anything but proud?”

* * *

Not everyone meets their donor family. Although it is becoming more common, largely thanks to social media, Portell says, it’s a mistake to assume everyone is willing or ready to make that connection.

Tom Martin does not know his donor. He received a heart in 2013, after many years of heart failure eventually left him hospitalized. Disqualified at first from receiving a transplant because his doctors suspected he had precancerous cells, he fought to stay on the transplant list. He wanted to see his youngest son grow up. Martin had family and friends write letters to the hospital’s transplant program, proving that he had a network who would support him in recovery. When a heart became available, he was rushed to Oregon Health and Science University; he posted on Facebook before the surgery: They found me a heart! Then he went under. He doesn’t know whose heart he received, and he doesn’t want to know.

“I was freaked out. I felt weird about waiting for somebody to die,” he says, now six years out from his transplant. He chokes up as he continues: “I knew it wouldn’t be nice. It would be a young person in an accident, or a suicide. That was the only part I hated.”

It’s hard to get an estimate of how many recipients end up meeting their families. Because each OPO operates independently (there are 58 in the United States), nationwide statistics are tough to track down. Current estimates hover around 50 percent, a much higher number than in previous decades. For tissue recipients like Portell, meetings are even rarer, as the donor’s tissue is often donated to multiple people. Meeting the family “should be an option,” says Portell, but she cautions against expecting a close connection.

* * *

Nalley resisted meeting his donor family for a long time. After his first transplant, he started running races, first an 8K and then half-marathons, testing out his new lungs’ capacities. He joined recreational sports leagues in Richmond, where he met his future wife, Martina. The freedom of being able to move where and when he wished was exhilarating. Finally, he could be a normal young man: “I’m going to spend an all-nighter at a girl’s house. Or go out with friends in Richmond and not have to worry about being home at a certain time,” he says. “Literally the tether was gone.”

A few years after his first transplant, in 2011, Nalley was competing at the Transplant Games of America, an Olympics-style series of events. A donor mom was helping to organize one of the events, and she pushed him to connect with his donor family — but the thought of communicating seemed like an imposition. “If I contact them and they’ve already put closure to this tragedy, am I just going to be pulling a Band-Aid off?” he wondered. “I didn’t want to disrupt someone’s life.”

Eventually he did write, and he met Terri, whose son Ryan had been in an accident at age 16 and donated his lungs, kidney, and heart. Nalley and Terri became close. They went for brunch and dinner regularly, and ran a 10K together. “We just kind of connected,” says Nalley. “The first time we met, I gave her this great big hug and she put her head to my chest and listened to me breathe.”

In 2013, just two years after they connected, Terri died. But Nalley missed her funeral. He was back in the hospital, getting another double lung transplant.

* * *

A transplanted organ or tissue never quite gets used to its new home in the recipient’s body. Although the organ or tissue can function well for many years, recipients have to take immunosuppressant drugs to keep their bodies from rebelling against the donation. Organs can be rejected by the immune system immediately, which is called acute rejection; the more insidious problem is long-term rejection, in which the body slowly begins to kick the organ out. That happens because the immune system doesn’t recognize the antigens, or foreign proteins, in the organ.

“Unless it’s being suppressed, the foreign proteins are recognized as ‘not-self,’” says Tibayan. “That would normally start a cascade of responses that is usually reserved for a viral infection, and so to keep that from happening, at the very least to slow it down from happening faster, patients have to be on immunosuppression.”

This can be a tricky juggling act for the care team, who — unlike most other surgeons, who are in and out of the patient’s body — work with a recipient for the rest of their life. Lungs are exposed to the outside world, to all the cold viruses and smoke and fungal spores that float around in our air. While most pathogens won’t bother a healthy pair of lungs, says Tibayan, people who are immunosuppressed are less likely to fight them off.

Even when the immune system accepts donated organs, it can take time for the recipient to mentally identify them as their own. For a long time, Martin carried a sense of “not-self” about his heart. “I had always thought I had this other person’s heart in me,” he says. Then, a few years after his transplant, he attended a music performance where the composer asked the audience members to listen to their breathing and heartbeats as part of the show. “I’m a super straight Lutheran. I’m definitely not woo-woo,” laughs Martin, but he closed his eyes and joined the visualization.

“I was kind of picturing our cells, and how they’re kind of like fish, like little waves. And I was picturing my body and all the waves going one way, and my heart going another way, like it was separate from me. And as I was sitting there,” he pauses, “they lined up.”

From then on, it was his heart.

When working with new recipients, Kilbourne asks them to take ownership of their new organs: “Those are your new lungs,” she tells them. And yet Nalley never felt that his lungs were quite his; they were always Ryan’s. And around 2010, his body started to reject them.

Chris got sicker. He went back on the transplant list, hoping for another call.

* * *

“There is no guidebook for this,” says Portell. “I wonder every year on the anniversary of P.J.’s death, what do I do?”

Portell always celebrates P.J.’s birthday. She imagines him as he would be now: a grown man in his early 30s. She imagines him going out with friends to a pub in London. But during his last birthday, she wondered if that was really the right thing. She texted a friend, asking for a change of plans. They stayed in, ordered a pizza, and watched Indiana Jones.

“It’s something P.J. would do,” says Portell.

When I asked her if she feels like she enacts his personality, if some part of him lives in her, she hesitates. She wants to talk about P.J., not herself. Sometimes the line between them gets blurred, and other times it seems so clear. “Every once in a while I think …” she trails off. This deep intimacy that recipients feel with their donors was hard for them to describe. It was self, and it was not-self. It was both.

We carry our parents, but also our doctors, nurses, teachers, organ donors: All these people flicker in us, tiny, guttering lights shielded from the wind by cupped hands.

For donor families, this distinction can often be hard to navigate. West doesn’t want to take her relationship with Nalley for granted; she tries to give him space. “I’m so thankful and blessed that he’s willing to be a part of my life,” she says. She creates mental barriers for herself because, given unlimited access to Nalley, she says she would treat him like her own child.

For Nalley, the boundaries are less important. “I guess she’s afraid to mess up the donor dynamic by involving herself,” he says. “But I’m like, ‘We’re family. I have your son’s DNA in me.’”

* * *

Robert Bartlett is an average-looking older white man: combed gray hair, a large nose, a University of Michigan lab coat. He has a long and well-funded career of medical research, and he’s famous for one thing in particular: pioneering the use of ECMO in children.

Heart recipients like Martin usually spend some time on ECMO or a similar technology. Basically, the blood is drained out of the right side of the body, goes to an oxygenator, then is pumped to the other side of the body to provide circulatory support. It’s used for bypass in heart surgeries and, in some cases, for lung transplants as well.

Bartlett began using ECMO to treat acute respiratory failure in infants in the 1970s. Until around 10 years ago, it wasn’t very effective, says Tibayan; recent progress in both training and technology have greatly improved outcomes. In other words, fewer babies die.

My son is not a machine, but he is alive because of them.

When I search for Bartlett on Google and find his picture, I start to cry. I’m never going to meet this guy, but he saved my son’s life.

Staring at his picture, I feel strangely connected to him. My son is alive because Bartlett is alive and because Bartlett chose to study medicine and chose to research this specific machine and because people in the past decade have been trying to improve ECMO so that fewer babies die. It is very difficult to describe that level of gratitude, to explain how my son is his own individual self, a happy little boy with no memory of being on ECMO, and that he also owes who he is, at least in part, to a gray-haired man from Michigan.

ECMO is now being investigated for use in ex vivo lung perfusion, a process that essentially keeps donor lungs healthy and oxygenated during that key, quick transfer window between donor and recipient. It’s being considered for use in keeping alive a brain-dead patient with healthy organs, so that those organs might go to people who need them. According to the University of Michigan, where Bartlett’s lab conducts research, “ECMO is very good at treating acute lung disorders. But it can’t help patients with chronic progressive lung diseases like COPD, pulmonary fibrosis or cystic fibrosis. Eventually these patients are left with just one option: a lung transplant.”

* * *

Nalley’s second transplant — the one where he received Hans’s lungs — was complicated. Usually a patient leaves the ICU within a week and starts physical therapy, but Nalley had a lot of scar tissue to cut through from his first transplant. His body didn’t recover from the surgery as quickly.

“He had some bleeding in the areas around his lungs after the transplant, and he had an infection, so he was in the ICU for a much longer time,” explains Kilbourne.

Cystic fibrosis patients, who are often young, are good candidates for retransplant. The care team evaluates a retransplant based on survival rates. According to recent studies — with extremely small sample sizes, considering how few people receive retransplants each year — the one-year survival rate of a pulmonary retransplant is around 71.5 percent. The five-year rate is about 34.5 percent. Nalley’s lungs are on year six.

“They told me the only reason I did it is because I’m stubborn and that stubbornness pushed me through the after-transplant process,” says Nalley, laughing. But he’s serious: The likelihood that the lungs will be put to good use, and that the patient will live a long life, is one thing the care team considers when looking at transplant recipients. Donated organs are a scarce resource; to give someone a second pair of lungs is to take them away from someone else. The team wants to be sure the recipient will be able to use those lungs as long as possible.

Nalley isn’t messing around with his time. He knows he may someday need another set of lungs, but he’s not sure he’ll get them. He lives in Richmond with his wife and two dogs, and they travel a lot. They’ve been to Lebanon, Thailand, and the Caribbean. He chats with West at least once a week. He got a tattoo sleeve that shows a pair of lungs with the words Donate Life.

* * *

The choices of others — to pursue medical training, to serve in the health care field, to give the body to others in death — are choices that we ourselves do not get to make, but they have a profound effect on our survival. In her book On Immunity, essayist Eula Biss describes how medical decisions are often thought of as individual acts, yet they have powerful consequences for entire communities. “We have more microorganisms in our guts than we have cells in our bodies — we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including — and especially — each other,” Biss writes. She posits that a sense of interconnectedness should govern our health care choices; that we cannot live in a bubble, mentally or physically, because our bodies exist in relation to one another.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time being sick, or has had a family member who has been very sick, has a network. We build connections to keep ourselves whole. Our medical experiences become our emotional makeup, our belief systems, our anxieties, our literal bodies. Some of these connections we can’t control. Others we can. The choice to donate an organ can be a checked box at the DMV or a conversation with a spouse. You strike one little match with that action, then probably forget about it. But down the line, someone else may carry that fire inside them — a flicker that binds body to body, the hiss as the wick catches, becomes a steady flame.


Are you interested in becoming an organ donor? If you live in the United States, register today. If you still have questions, learn more about what it means to become an organ donor.


Caitlin Dwyer is a writer from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared recently in The Rumpus, Narratively, Creative Nonfiction, and Tricycle. She studied journalism at the University of Hong Kong, fiction at Pomona College, and poetry through the Rainier Writer’s Workshop.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands