Life on the Machine

Norris Middleton is conflicted about accepting an organ donation


In 2002, my wife Janis, the love of my life, suddenly passed away. The organ donor coordinator soon contacted me. I was amazed they wanted skin, bone, all her organs, even her corneas. This one donor helped a dozen or more people. My Janis lives on.

Now, I need a kidney transplant. I lost the first kidney to cancer when I was 3, the second when that cancer returned last year. I have to be cancer-free for one year before I can be considered for a transplant. I'm getting tested this week.

Fortunately, my situation is not overly life-threatening. Dialysis keeps me alive, although it is a nuisance. Three days a week, I spend four or five hours with needles the size of pencils in my vein and artery. My blood pressure constantly fluctuates and the renal diet prohibits me from consuming half of the variety of foods I am accustomed to. Weekly blood draws inevitably require another pill or diet modification.

The transplant coordinator told me that the most desirable donor is a living relative, but that is not an option. The surgery is too dangerous for my 93-year-old mother, and I can’t in good conscience accept one from my children. Having one kidney would disqualify my son from his life-long ambition of becoming a police officer. My daughter hasn’t had children yet, and they very strongly advise against women donating if they plan to get pregnant.

My pool of possible donors is down to friends, strangers and deceased donors.

Although inconvenient and painful, dialysis has become a tolerable way of life, and I am seriously conflicted about accepting a kidney donation. There are people in my dialysis unit in their 20s, 30s and 40s who have been waiting five to 15 years for a kidney. They’re struggling to work, support families, train for jobs, and not be a burden. I'm 59; my children are grown and on their own. No one depends on me for support, and I can live on dialysis indefinitely.

I frequently ponder the concept of the “greater good.” Should I at 59 accept a kidney that could free some younger person from the shackles of the dialysis machine and normalize his or her life? Don’t they deserve the same freedom and opportunities I had to raise a family, pursue their dreams and contribute to society? I’m increasingly conflicted.

Middleton is Claire Goforth’s uncle. A father of two and grandfather of one, Middleton lives in Annapolis, Md., with his 93-year-old mother and 28-year-old daughter.

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