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Taking the New Body for A Test Drive

The first week in June, I returned to my apartment in Tulsato live on my own again.  I had announced to my parents a few days earlier that I was ready.

“Are you sure?” Mom asked, just as I knew she would.

“Yes, I am.  I’m ready,” I said.

“If he says he’s ready, then he’s ready,” said Dad after I got a little resistance from Mom.

The strength in my leg had increased enough that I no longer felt like I would topple over from a strong gust of wind.  My hands had recovered enough grip strength that I could turn door knobs and feed myself with no problem.  If I was going to get stronger than that, it was necessary to start being independent again.

The strength in my hands and left leg was at about 75 percent of what it had been before my surgery.  That was OK.  It was enough for me to lead a low-key, sedentary life.  It was just me and my new organs.  It was like a honeymoon.

I’m not going to tell you I wasn’t nervous about it.  When I say I was going to be on my own there, I mean really on my own.  There was no support network there like I had in Arkansas.  There was no one I could depend on to help me out.  This would be total independence, and my success or failure was up to me.

Most of the time, I kept pretty close to home.  It was nice to be able to use the pool only a few steps from my front door.  It allowed me to socialize more with some of the other tenants of the apartment complex. 

Of course, I talked to people about my new transplant.  People were amazed by it.  Shocked reactions were something I would have to get used to.  Actually, it was fun to watch the expressions on people’s faces when I told them about what I’d been through.  You just don’t expect someone to open up their mouth and say, “I was diabetic and on dialysis.  Now I’m not.  I had a kidney/pancreas transplant.”

“I didn’t even know they could transplant a pancreas,” more than one of them said.

“I found out it could be done just a few months before it happened,” I replied.

I had only learned what a pancreas was five days before I was first diagnosed with diabetes.  Twenty-one years later, I got a new pancreas only a few months after discovering it could, in fact, be transplanted.

The pool also turned out to be a good place to exercise my left leg.  With more buoyancy in the water, I kicked and paddled easier, feeling a little stronger each day.  Sometimes I held onto the concrete edge with my body extended into the water behind me and kicked, feeling the muscles in my leg come back to life.

But I knew that if I really wanted to get my strength back, I would need to return to the gym.  Now more than ever, I was glad to be a member of the small health club downtown.  The smaller number of members allowed us to get better one-on-one attention from the staff.  The people who worked there were very friendly and helpful, too.  They kept a watchful and cautious eye on me when I worked out. 

I guess I’m going to have to deal with people treating me like I’m made out of glass.

Dr. Squires had cleared me to lift up to 70 pounds.  With my grip still not back to normal, there was no chance of me lifting that much for a while.  Still, it felt good to move this way again. 

You have a normal metabolism now.  You have a new body.  Let’s see what it can do.

It was important to exercise now, not only to regain strength, but also because the high dose of prednisone would soon cause me to put on weight.  The doctors and nurses at the hospital had warned me about that.  The added weight could go on as muscle or fat.  It was up to me to decide which it would be.  I knew that since I could – and did – eat all the sweets I wanted, I needed to burn off those calories if I didn’t want to wear them.  Luckily, I had worked out in health clubs enough over the past twelve years not to be self-conscious about having to use light weights at this point.  I wasn’t there to impress anybody.  I was pretty impressed with myself, just for being there at all.

In one corner of the gym was a type of bench used for back extensions.  It could also be used for sit-ups.  It was padded where the user’s hips came in contact with the bench.  I carefully climbed up on it and positioned myself for sit-ups, hoping it wouldn’t hurt my scar too much.

I hooked my feet under a bar and leaned back ever so slowly.  There were bars on each side with handles that I could grab hold of if I needed to.  To my surprise, though, I was able use my abdominal muscles to pull myself back up.  It took quite a bit of effort, but I did it without having to grab the handles. 

The second time I tried it, I went back even further.  The vertical scar down the middle of my abdomen stretched for the first time since the surgery.  In massage school, I had learned how adhesions occurred in muscle under surgery scars, and wanted to avoid that.  It would be necessary to unbind all that scar tissue under the skin, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.  That was fine.  This was the fun part of the adventure I had started over a year earlier.  

Each day brought a new discovery.  In some ways, it was like owning a new car.  You learn more after you buy it than you do during the test drive.  My new body didn’t have an owner’s manual, but I could always call the transplant center if I had questions.  They would never be able to accurately describe all the new sensations I would experience, but they could give me some guidelines.

I wish I could have bottled and sold the euphoria I felt.  Even though I was still being closely monitored by doctors with blood tests, I felt more free and unburdened than I’d felt in several years.  After years of dread in the background, gradually moving to the forefront, I couldn’t wait to face the day and what it might bring.

A couple of weeks after getting back out on my own in Tulsa, one of their notorious thunderstorms hit in the middle of the night.  One hundred mile-an-hour wind battered my bedroom window, which spanned the entire width of the room.  Worried that the glass would break, I stood in the hall for several minutes until the storm died down.

This was my first brush with any sort of danger in the big world outside of Hospital Land.  The threat of any physical harm was low, but it occurred to me as I stood in the hall that it would have been a bitter irony if something were to happen to me so soon after all that I’d been through. 

Life is more precious after you’ve had to fight to keep it.

The next day, I walked to the grocery store for a few items that I could easily carry home.  Now that it was summer, I wanted ice cream.  I was like a kid again, anxious for my first bowl of ice cream as a former diabetic.  At the store, I had trouble locating it.  It wasn’t something I’d bought there before, so I never noticed where it was kept.  I walked up and down the frozen food aisles, growing more and more impatient.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the high dose of prednisone – a steroid – was causing something commonly known as “roid rage.” 

All I want is some ice cream.  Why the hell does that have to be so complicated?

Finally, I noticed the empty frozen food bin where the ice cream should have been. 

I can’t believe they ran out! 

A display shelf about my height and not much bigger around stood next to me, and I was so full of rage I had the impulse to push it over.  It was a moment like I’d seen in cartoons, with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  I stood there, looking at it and going back and forth in my mind.  The frustration and anger needed an escape.  It was a struggle to keep it in. 

The angel won out, though, and I stomped to the checkout line to pay for my groceries, minus the ice cream that I craved.  There I learned that the store had lost power during and after the storm.  All of the ice cream had been ruined.  When I stopped at a Quick-Trip convenience store on the way home, I found the same situation there.

I was furious, and walked the rest of the way home, mad at the world over ice cream.  Later, I calmed down and wondered why I had let it push me to the verge of knocking over a store display.

That was only a hint of things to come.  Now I had a shorter fuse, and was quick to snap at my family and friends.  I had heard that some transplant recipients’ personalities changed after the surgery, and wondered – in my more lucid moments – if that was what was happening to me.  Or was it the personality of the organ donor fighting its way to the surface?  My new body was still a mystery to me.  Evidently, my emotions were as well.