#2. The Drugs Are a Pain in the Ass
Even though my mom is so close to me genetically that I suspect I may be my own grandmother, I still have to take anti-rejection drugs for her donated kidney. Your immune system is kind of like an insane bouncer at an exclusive nightclub -- nobody waiting outside is allowed in, and anyone who makes it inside is killed. While this is a favorable response for invading germs, it will utterly destroy your new organ. Because you can't calm your immune system down by patiently explaining that the two of you need this new kidney to live, you have to take immunosuppressant drugs to stifle its intruder-slaying rage.
"Poppies ... poppies ... poppies will put them to sleep ..."
While this helps preserve your kidney (even though the drugs themselves actually damage your kidneys), it also opens you up to every other microbe that wants to kill you. You are much more susceptible to illnesses, so much so that about one-third of kidney transplant patient deaths are due to infections. Minor cuts and injuries have to be taken very seriously because of how easily they can become infected. Even if you don't catch something serious, you soon realize how much day-to-day maintenance your immune system normally does, because you will catch minor irritating illnesses constantly. Urinary tract infections, yeast infections, flus, colds -- basically everything that isn't serious enough to kill you, but bad enough to make you miserable.
The drugs themselves are a constant source of anxiety, too. Immunosuppressant drugs have tons of dangerous interactions and side effects, and not just with other prescription drugs -- over-the-counter stuff like aspirin or ibuprofen, which you normally take without a second thought, has to be monitored closely to avoid a potentially lethal interaction with your medication. Even your food can cause problems -- you can't drink green tea or eat grapefruit because of the interactions it can cause, which just adds to the ever-expanding list of reasons why grapefruit sucks.
All the effort of an orange for the taste of citrus-flavored anus.
The drugs can cause some ... other problems as well. After the surgery, they had me nuked out of my gourd on painkillers in an effort to trick my body into thinking it hadn't just been sliced open and had part of its guts juggled out. Unfortunately, the painkillers had more or less stopped my digestive system, which is the diplomatic way of saying that I stopped pooping. The nurses loaded me up with stool softeners (real prescription stool softeners, mind you, not over-the-counter stool softeners like Hot Pockets), but nothing worked. Until my last night in the hospital, that is.
I had been slowly tapering off my pain meds in preparation for being discharged when my intestines finally woke up. I told the nurse, "I think I can poop now." I scuttled off to the bathroom and then proceeded to explode out of both ends for about 20 minutes. For three months, that was all I could do. I would sleep for half an hour, wake up and go obliterate the bathroom like the world's worst sprinkler toy, and then go back to sleep for another half hour. This cycle went on until I had finally recovered enough that the doctors could take me off the cocktail of drugs I was on and just left me with the lowest dose of anti-rejection drugs.
"And your stigmata is clearing up nicely."
And once things stabilize and you're out of the woods -- assuming you make it there at all -- you have to deal with the fact that ...
#1. You Don't Know How Much Time You've Got Left
The average life span of a transplanted kidney is 10 to 12 years, but there's a huge amount of variation; some kidneys fail a few hours after the surgery, others last the rest of your life. Doctors can make guesses, but the simple fact is nobody really knows how long it will last, and that knowledge hangs over your head like the Sword of Damocles.
Tay Jnr/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"I would go camping this weekend, but my kidney might explode at any second, so I think I'll have to pass."
Many factors can influence how long your relief pitcher will stay in the game, such as your age and overall health, whether the kidney came from a live donor or a cadaver, how long you've been on dialysis, and the number of voodoo curses that have been placed on you recently. But beyond that, you're essentially rolling the dice as far as how long you've got until your new kidney shrivels out of existence like a High School Musical star.
After the surgery, the doctors immediately begin monitoring your kidney function to make sure it's actually working, because even with the anti-rejection drugs, your body can still reject the kidney. You can also suffer from a disease called graft versus host, wherein immune cells from the donor stow away in the kidney like plague rats and then start attacking your body once the organ is dropped inside. Even if you manage to dodge all of those complications, sometimes the damn kidney just refuses to work, and nobody knows why.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"
"After an increase in plasma osmotic pressure!"
It's been a few years since my transplant, and my kidney is still working like a champ. Another guy I met during this whole process had gotten a kidney from his stepsister only four or five years prior and was already showing early signs of kidney failure, so it really boils down to the luck of the draw.
Otherwise, all you can do is watch and wait. Six months ago, I got to feeling bad enough that I went back to the hospital. When I got there, the doctors diagnosed me with sepsis, which is the final stage of an infection before your organs begin to shut down. I had gotten a minor kidney infection that was exacerbated by the anti-rejection drugs and had spiraled out of control. It would have been easy to treat if it had been caught early, so why didn't I go to the doctor as soon as I started feeling like shit? Simple: I had forgotten that feeling awful wasn't a normal way of life.
"Wait, you guys don't feel like absolute shit all the time?"
By the time of my transplant, I had been living with declining kidney function for a decade. I was used to being swollen and puffy from all the fluid my body was retaining, I was accustomed to the general malaise that comes from your blood having dangerous levels of toxins, and excruciating kidney pain from ruptured cysts was just another day of the week to me. I had lived in agony for so long that I'd forgotten that feeling terrible is your body's way of telling you something is very wrong.
But, over time, you gradually start to remember what it means to be healthy. I was out to lunch with some friends, and I suddenly realized that I didn't hurt anymore. My medications were no longer making me sick, I had a healthy kidney doing its job and keeping my body clean (no need for robo-vampires, thank you), and I was able to enjoy the sun on my skin and the company of my friends, free from distracting pain or sickness. I actually felt good, which was a nice change of pace for me. All it took was a chunk of living meat carved out of my mother's body and an impossible amount of luck.
Now if only she would stop holding a knife and rubbing my side while I'm sleeping.
This article was constructed from an interview conducted by Chris Radomile. Chris writes for his website and tweets. He also hosts a podcast that is still legal in most states. You can find Angela's musings at The Amusing Ingenue.
Related Reading: Kidneys aren't the only organ that come with a warning sign, apparently disembodied brains are extremely dangerous. Or that your nurse might be stealing your pain medication? And did you know that near-death experiences are pretty overrated and painful? Have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.
Sign up to be an organ donor today, if you haven't already. Seriously, do it. And if you've got time, click the button below and share this article on Facebook.