Circle of Events: A New Kidney, a New Life

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Independent producer Matt Holzman underwent a kidney transplant operation a decade ago. A few days after his operation, he discovered and kept all the messages concerning his kidney. He uses the messages to paint a tale of how the operation that saved his life came about.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Every year, more than 9,000 people in this country get a new kidney. Kidney transplants are the second most common transplant surgery. Corneal transplants are the most common.

BLOCK: The first kidney transplant was performed in 1954 between identical twins. The recipient lived for eight years. Today, according to the American Association of Kidney Patients, the success rate over 10 years is about 65 percent.

SIEGEL: But not everyone is able to get a transplant. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, there are over 66,000 waiting for a new kidney. Some wait days. Others, years.

BLOCK: Commentator Matt Holzman was one of those who waited years. Then, he got a call. Actually, several of them.

Mr. MATT HOLZMAN (Commentator): I want to tell you a story that has a happy ending. I know, I know. That spoils the drama. But I don't care. I'll even tell you the ending. Ready? Here's the big reveal: I am alive. The story could have ended differently.

Twenty-five years ago I went to my college health center and saw a scary ultrasound picture of my kidneys all covered with bumps. A few years later, you didn't need an ultrasound machine to see my kidneys. They made me look like I had a lopsided beer belly. When they got to be the size of footballs, they had to be removed. And I had to start going to dialysis to have a machine clean my blood three times a week. I waited for years for a kidney transplant. I began to give up hope.

(Soundbite of answering machine)

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, Matt. This is the transplant office at UCLA. We have a kidney to offer you. I need to get a hold of you right away. It's 10:00 on Sunday. I will try paging you. And I need to get a hold of you.

Mr. HOLZMAN: Super Bowl Sunday, 1996. It's Dallas versus Pittsburgh and who cares? So, my friends and I decide to go to Disneyland while everyone else in Southern California is sitting in front of their TVs drinking beer.

Now, these are the days before everyone had a cell phone. I had a transplant pager, but it only rang when I called it occasionally to make sure it worked. But now it's vibrating wildly in the pocket of my fluffy down jacket, only I'm not wearing my fluffy down jacket. It's sitting on my friend's dining room table.

(Soundbite of answering machine)

Unidentified Woman #2: Hi, little pumpkin. You have a kidney. Okay, I'm going to come over to your house and I'm going...

Unidentified Speaker: Matthew, get up. They've got a kidney for you. Get up.

STEPHANIE: Matt, it's Stephanie. It's 10:00. They have a kidney for you. Get up. This is Stephanie. They've got a kidney for you. This is Stephanie. They've got a kidney for you. Get up.

GAIL: Matthew, this is Gail. You need to call UCLA as soon as possible, Matthew. They have a kidney for you.

Mr. HOLZMAN: I sit around waiting for my friends to decide which sneakers their kid will wear to Disneyland. Meanwhile, a fresh red kidney sits in a Coleman ice chest somewhere in the bowels of the UCLA Medical Center.

Everyone I know is frantically looking for me. If they don't find me in short order, that kidney, that fist-sized new lease on life goes to some other lucky bastard. So the messages pile up. My sister, my girlfriend, my stepmother, while I get ready to travel to the Magic Kingdom.

(Soundbite of answering machine)

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm beginning to think that you're not home. I'm hoping that that's not the case. If you are home and you receive this phone call, get up. I hope that you're just sleeping and ignoring this. Get up.

Mr. HOLZMAN: My friend's kid is finally ready to meet Mickey and Donald. But now other friends want to join us on our visit to the happiest place on earth. So we wait.

I shudder to think about it. After four years of praying and begging and bargaining, my new kidney is about to be someone else's dream come true, and all for a ride on the Matterhorn.

Then the phone rings. It's for me. I couldn't tell you who it was, but I remember what they said. They said, get to UCLA now. The drive should have taken me about 20 minutes. I think I made it in about two. I filled out paperwork. They put me in a room. It fills up with my friends and family and balloons. The Super Bowl pre-game show is on the TV. It's like a party without the beer.

When the game's about to start, the party's over for me, at least. They come and get me and roll me to the operating room. It's cold and unfamiliar. Blue ghosts move purposefully around the room, mostly ignoring me. Eventually the surgeon comes. I'm a little nervous that he might be distracted by the big game, and I ask him if he's a football fan.

Only if it's close, he says.

And I'm asleep.

After three and a half hours in surgery, I'm lying comfortably in the recovery room.

(Soundbite of answering machine)

Dr. SHOSKES: Yeah, hi, It's Dr. Shoskes calling from UCLA. I'm the transplant surgeon. I couldn't find the family in the waiting room or upstairs. Everything went fine and he'll be in the recovery room for a couple of hours. Probably about 10:00 he'll move up to intensive care unit. Bye-Bye.

Mr. HOLZMAN: Later, I learned my family had gone across the street for pizza while I was on the operating table. But the news of my transplant was spreading.

(Soundbite of answering machine message)

Unidentified Male #1: Matt, I'm so happy for you. I hope all went well and we...

DIANA: Hey, Matt. It's Diana. I just wanted to call and tell you how happy I am that you've gotten a new kidney. I hope that you take to it well and that it takes to you.

Unidentified Male #2: Matthew Holzman, are you home? Rich and I were going to come by and visit you, but I don't know if you need to see people? Are you in a plastic bubble? Are you home even?

Mr. HOLZMAN: When I went into surgery, I was so sick. When I woke up, I felt like a million bucks. My recovery was more a trip to a spa than a stay in a medical center. I ate formerly forbidden foods. I'd been limited to a quart of water a day for years, but now the nurses kept nudging, drink more water. Everyone was really excited by the yellow stuff flowing into the bag by my bed.

I didn't hear the phone messages you just heard until I got out of Club UCLA 10 days later. When I did, I sat down on my bed and I cried so hard I thought I'd bust my stitches. A few days later, my friends brought me a pair of Mickey Mouse ears from Disneyland that said Kidney Boy.

So, why am I telling you this story with the happy ending? Well, my kidney came from a 14-year-old boy who was killed in a skateboarding accident. On the worst day that his parents will ever know, they opened their hearts and saved my life. For months after my transplant, I tried to write a letter to say thank you but words seemed painfully inadequate.

So now I'm hoping they hear this and know that I am alive and well thanks to them. Think of it as another delayed phone message of sorts. Like the ones I recovered after my stay in the hospital. This one simply says thank you.

BLOCK: Matt Holzman produces the NPR program called The Business at member station, KCRW. He's the third member of his family to receive a kidney transplant. He has a sister who may need one in the future.

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