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My Last Diabetic Day: A Tribute to My Donor

It was thirteen years ago today when I got the call that changed my life forever. A kidney and pancreas had been found for me. Overnight I went from being a diabetic doing dialysis to being free from that life. It’s a bittersweet day for me, because I know someone lost someone they loved that day. It’s ironic how carefree that day was for me. It was one of the few days I didn’t wonder if “The Call” would come that day. It must have been a very different day for his family.

This is an excerpt from my memoir, which I hope to have published.

Sunday, April 5th. Everyone had set their clocks forward the night before. Since becoming visually impaired, the switch to Daylight Savings Time each spring has been one my favorite days of the year. It meant an extra hour of light each evening. That translated into ease of mobility, either by driving or walking.

My day started an hour later than usual. It would take me a few days to get accustomed to the time change. Not that it really mattered. I was no longer working and by then, I usually slept almost twelve hours a day.

It was a beautiful spring day. The sun was shining, the wind wasn’t blowing too much, and it was warm. After I got my morning exchange done, I went for a walk.

An old railroad had been converted into a trail for walking, jogging, or biking. It ran roughly parallel to

Riverside Drive

, except it weaved between homes, back yards and businesses. It was more secluded than the path in the long narrow park on the riverbank, so it wasn’t used by as many people.

My energy level was good and I was in the mood to explore. Much of the trail was shaded. I was surprised at just how close it came to the backs of some of the houses and I wondered how long it had been since it had been an actual, functioning railroad.

It was nice to walk for pleasure, without needing to be somewhere by a certain time. It was one of those rare times when I didn’t have a bus to catch. There were no groceries to carry and there was plenty of daylight—an extra hour of it—left in the day. There was no need to hurry. This was a good thing, because I hate feeling rushed. Besides, Sundays like that are too perfect to rush through.

I must have walked a couple of miles, though it was hard to be sure because of the way the trail curved. There were no street signs to identify which block I was on. This was a rare moment for me, especially since my kidneys had failed. To be at peace and content—“in the moment,” as they say—was a luxury.

When I reached a point where I had used about half of my energy, I turned around and headed north, back home. I remembered that there was a small diner near 21st and Riverside and decided a hamburger would be good for lunch. It was starting to get pretty hot out as I approached the building. A cool drink would really hit the spot.

It was locked. That didn’t make sense, so I checked the sign for the hours of business. They closed on Sundays at 2:00.

What time IS it anyway? Did I lose track of time?

Usually, I am a very good judge of time, so it surprised me that I was off the mark by so much. Then I remembered the time change. It was later in the day than I thought it was. I was only five or six blocks from home, so I headed there, with that eerie, slightly off-center feeling you get when time has tricked you.

After I ate a small lunch (my appetite had dwindled over the past several months) and did another exchange, I took out the trash and spent a couple of hours painting in ink. It was still mostly experimental, but now and then I managed to impress myself with the results. I had just cleaned up after my painting when the phone rang.

“James, this is Tawanna, we need you to get here as fast as you can make it. We’ve found a donor.”

Let me try as best I can to describe how I felt. You’ll have to forgive me if it sounds cliché at times.

Yes, my hands trembled, and yes, my heart skipped a beat—maybe two.

Tawana, the transplant coordinator, continued, “Do an exchange and bring a bag of solution with you to do one here.”

“OK,” I said, trying to stay calm. This was important information. I needed to pay attention.

“Don’t eat anything before you get here. What time did you eat last?”

I told her when it was, what it was, and how much it was. She might have asked what my last blood sugar test was—or maybe not. It’s been several years and with each passing second, my excitement increased.

As soon as she hung up, I called my parents.

Oh, God, please let them be home.

My mother answered the phone.

She already sounds tense. Is everything OK there?

“Mom, they found organs for me,” I said, so full of excitement, I could hardly contain myself.

“I know, honey, she called here a few minutes ago.”

What? Why would she call there first?

“She wanted to make sure your number hadn’t changed. When she called you the first time, some girl answered the phone and didn’t know who you were. I told her you live alone. I guess she dialed wrong the first time.”

So, if Mom and Dad hadn’t been home, I would have missed out on this.

“We’re getting ready as fast as we can,” Mom continued “It might be close to 9:00 when we get there.”


They lived two hours away from Tulsa. Still, I rushed around my apartment, trying to think of what I would need for a ten-day hospital stay.

Take shorts with an elastic waist. My belly will be tender. And loose-fitting clothes, magnifying glass, and socks. Clean underwear, that dialysis bag, sunglasses. What else?

An old episode of I Love Lucy flickered across my mind. It was the one when a very pregnant Lucy enters the room and announces, “It’s time.” Ricky, Fred, and Ethel panic and run around the room, trying to pack a suitcase and spilling it onto the floor. In their haste, they run out and leave Lucy standing there. I smiled, slowed down, and hoped my parents were a little more composed than that back in Greenwood at that moment.

There were phone calls I needed to make. One by one, I called my friends in Arkansas to share the good news. My voice quavered and tears of joy ran down my face as I thanked them for all of their support. This needed to be said, because what if I didn’t make it? What if something went horribly wrong and I never had the chance to thank them?

No, just don’t go there. It’s going to be fine. No dark thoughts now.

Sometimes I only reached answering machines. I left frantic, overjoyed messages, trying to say all I needed to say as fast as I could. I didn’t want to be cut off by a beep.

Never before had my body sustained such an adrenaline rush for such a long period of time. I tried to calm down. I took deep breaths, exhaling slowly.

After everything was packed, I did another exchange.

Soon—very soon—I’ll never have to do this again.

In my desk, I kept a temporary hold card for the post office, waiting for just this occasion. It was all filled out except for the dates, which I filled in with orders to hold my mail until further notice. Carefully, I clipped it to my mailbox by the door, proud of myself for having the forethought to take care of this detail in anticipation of The Big Day. This day.

I hope I’m not forgetting anything. Calm down and think.

Milk and leftovers in the refrigerator went down the kitchen sink. There were no perishables left in my kitchen to spoil while I was gone.

Then, I waited, trying not to worry. I listened to soothing music, and I thanked God.

My parents knocked at the door. I opened it and gave Mom a big hug. We quickly gathered my things and hurried to their car, parked in the closest parking space they could find in the tiny lot. A guy stepping out of a van said, “Hey, that’s for tenants only.”

“He’s about to get a transplant,” Dad said “We need to hurry,”

An argument with this jerk wasn’t going to ruin this moment for me, so I said nothing. He did, however, receive my frostiest “go to hell” glare.

We were on our way. It was dark. In a rush and nervous, Dad made a wrong turn and we found ourselves in downtown Sapulpa, a suburb just west of the Arkansas River from where I lived. Momentary panic set in. I had never been to downtown Sapulpa, but this wasn’t the time to check it out.

It didn’t take long for us to get our bearings and we sped along Interstate 44 to Oklahoma City.

Just relax. It’s in God’s hands now. It’s your turn now. Your patience is about to be rewarded.

From where I sat in the back seat, the dark landscape passed in a blur. I tried to imagine what would happen to me in the next few days. So much of it was a blank. I had asked all the questions I could think of over the preceding months, but now it didn’t seem like enough.

The car sped southwest under the dark, wide Oklahoma sky. I hoped we wouldn’t get pulled over by a state trooper, delaying my big appointment with Fate. I listened to more soothing music on my Walkman and closed my eyes.

We reached the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Dad found the exit we needed without any trouble and we found the streets quiet, late on a Sunday night. A few of the houses we passed still had lights on and I thought of the occupants inside, having a typical Sunday night before starting a new work week, oblivious to this anything-but-typical day in my life.

Dad found a space in the parking deck and we hurried through a door. Only a few steps inside was an elevator, which we took to another floor, where the Admitting office was located. With only a few minutes to spare until that office closed, we rushed through the halls. If they closed before we arrived, I would have to be admitted through the emergency room, an extra step we didn’t really want to bother with.

The three of us charged into the large waiting area in Admitting to find it deserted except for a woman behind a desk. It was late. She looked tired and would be getting off work in a few minutes. Our excitement was contagious, which seemed to re-energize her. It probably wasn’t every day a patient on the verge of receiving an organ transplant sat across the desk from her. When we told her why I was there, she seemed genuinely happy for me.

Moments later, I was in an examining room, wearing a hospital gown. A doctor examined me before two nurses went to work prepping me for surgery.

I had been told to bring a bag of dialysis solution and supplies to do an exchange. Actually, it was only to drain the fluid from my peritoneum from the last exchange I did at home. This would be the last time I would do this procedure, something that had become as commonplace as brushing my teeth. I made sure every drop drained out of me. Never again would I feel that odd sensation of fluid being drained out of my belly through a plastic cord. And I would be through with two shots a day, too.

Soon, my abdomen would feel pain and tenderness and God only knew what other types of unfamiliar sensations.

For several years after the transplant, I thought of my donor every time I ate something sweet. After being diabetic 21 years I had accepted the fact that I would live with it for the rest of my life. Now, I don’t always think of my donor or the transplant when I eat sweets. It’s one of the few ways my life has become more “normal” over the years. But, today and tomorrow are sacred days for me. I’ll never forget what my family, friends, and the donor all did for me. I’ll never forget that I am a survivor.