After surviving years of declining health and a double transplant, OutReach’s Development Director Nikki Baumblatt* looks back at the woman who cared for her, loved her, and stayed next to her through it as she tries to say: I Love You.
How do I thank you for saving my life?
The words seem so simple. They even appear a bit melodramatic, but regardless of simplicity or melodrama, it is a real challenge for me. You say, you did what you needed to do, what you vowed to do, what you had to do! I think I finally understand what you’re saying, but I’m still at a loss for words and/or actions that would demonstrate my appreciation… my love.
Almost 20 years ago we vowed to be there for each other through whatever life might hand us—it was part of our lifetime commitment. I don’t know if either one of us was prepared for that vow to become a day-to-day reality. Or maybe you were and I was the one who was naive enough to think that “those kinds of things” would never touch us.
Well, I was wrong…
Oy, was I wrong!
More than five years ago we started to suspect something was not right with my health. Heck, you had long believed that I suffered from a systemic infection that never was completely eliminated by any treatment. Whatever “it” was seemed to lay in wait until I was tired or worn down, and inevitably I would come down with bronchitis, the flu, walking pneumonia, whooping cough and enough sinus infections for several people’s lifetimes.
I know how tiring and frustrating this was for me. I can only imagine what you went through as you nursed me through each illness and put up with my frustrations and guilt over constantly being sick. You were an amazing nurse, and you made sure I followed the “rules,” which led me to lovingly call you “Nurse Cratchet,” a nickname that stuck.
For five years it feels like we/I saw every specialist and was tested for every conceivable disease. I say “we” because you walked along side me every step of the way, and when my fear and exhaustion got the best of me, you would gently take my hand and lead me through the medical hoops. I may have been the patient, but you made it clear to everyone – from doctors and nurses to me-– that we were going through this together!
When I began to seriously go down hill (at the beginning of 2008), you were the one who listened to my fears, dried my tears and, with my permission, became a fierce advocate. You were the one who told our primary physician that we weren’t leaving her office until we had a game plan for how to deal with my health crisis. You were the one who continued to research every possible lead, and you were the one who realized communications was a problem and became the conduit of communications for all the medical personnel.
As we continued on this journey of ours, several days stand out in my mind: the day that we were told I had third-stage chronic kidney dis-ease, the day we were told that I had end-stage kidney and liver disease, and that my long-term survival was dependent on a transplant, and, of course, the night we received the call concerning a possible match.
I know what I was going through at each stage, but I can still only imagine what you had to endure. Your public face was that of a very determined “Mama Bear.” The face I saw was one that rarely showed doubt that this would all work out. Yet, I still don’t know what was hap-pening inside of you. I believe I had it much easier because I only had to be sick. You, on the other hand, had to watch me, support me and deal with the real possibility of me dying despite our best efforts.
Our lives changed so quickly. The list of things I could no longer do was mounting, and this meant major changes in your life. You were the only one who understood how devastating it was for me to resign my position at OutReach. It’s not that you didn’t gracefully assume many daily tasks (including work at OutReach) without comment, but you had to deal with me as I saw my grasp on normal responsibilities slip away. I think your true skill came in the area of helping me cope with all that I was losing. Each loss of independence was one more indicator of what I truly stood to lose, and I know I didn’t accept those losses graciously.
I knew that beyond all else, I wasn’t ready to die… I didn’t want to leave you! I also knew that whether I liked it or not, I had to prepare for the worst. I didn’t have much I could leave you in order to ensure your financial security, but I did what I could do to make sure that you would have a support system which would be there for you if the clock ran out before the needed transplants were found.
I also wanted to make sure that the time we spent together left you with positive memories. I remember telling you that when my grandfather was dying of cancer, he became a bitter and angry man. I didn’t want people to remember me that way… I didn’t want your final memories of me to be centered around anger and bitterness. Thank you for helping me live up to this desire. I can’t be sure that, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have sunken to that level of despair.
In our almost 20 years together, you have given me many gifts; some that came in boxes and with bows and others that came from your heart and with love. It is impossible for me to choose one gift that I value more highly than the others, but there are those that hold a very special place for me.
The one that comes to mind right now is your telling me that I was your hero! Me, a hero? You have got to be kidding! I’m the one who has depended on your strength to see me through challenge after challenge. Yet, I know you are sincere in your sentiment, and I promise to always treat this gift with great gentleness and respect, but I will always feel it more appropriate that you are my hero. I would literally not be alive today if it weren’t for you… your strength, your determination, your support and your love.
I know neither of us will ever forget Thursday, August 7, the evening we received the call from the UW Transplant Unit saying they had a possible match. Life stopped and went into over-drive in the space of a few seconds. All I could do was cry and shake. My mind was swimming with so many thoughts including: the family of the donor who had just lost someone they loved, that this may be the one chance I would have at a second chance, all the calls and arrangements we needed to make and getting to the hospital safely.
Once we were completely admitted to the Transplant Unit, we tried to relax and watch a movie. Yeah, right! This was not going to happen. I was so excited and so scared, and you knew it. We even tried to cuddle in the hospital bed which is not advisable for two large women, but it did elicit a great deal of giggling before we gave up on the idea in favor of maintaining each of our blood circulation.
Seriously, the ensuing hours marched by, marked by both excitement and trepidation. If this person was going to die regardless, please let them be a match. It was hard to explain to people that we wouldn’t know if it was a match until after they turned off the donor’s life support the next morning. Only then would we know for sure, and in the meantime, all we could do was wait.
I’d like to think I used those hours to reflect on all the good times we had shared. If this were to be our last night together, I was going to do my best to memorize every look, tone and sound. I was so afraid of leaving you, but I knew that the surgery was my only chance… our only chance to have a future together. I want you to know that this was my only goal in the end! I was going to fight with everything I had left so that I could keep you in my life. And each time I looked at you, I saw you doing your best to be strong for me, to build up my confidence and, as is your habit, to put your own needs behind some door to be dealt with at another time.
August 8, 2008, will always be my second birthday to us. It was on 8/8/08 that I underwent and you endured twelve hours of surgery. We came out of surgery with a bouncing new baby liver and kidney and with the possibility for a shared future. I can’t tell you the relief I felt when I first heard your voice and saw your face. A sense of security descended on me, and I knew that I/we had received our second chance.
Thanks to your excellent care, I flew out of TLC (UW Hospital’s version of ICU) in 36 hours instead of the expected five days, and I re-turned home from the hospital in nine days instead of the predicted three weeks. Yes, you could say I was motivated. I wanted to begin taking the burden off of you as quickly as possible, even if that only meant taking responsibility for my own medications.
Although I was probably in more denial than you, I don’t believe either one of us allowed my pre-surgical deterioration to register completely. It was one of the ways we coped. I am also beginning to ac-knowledge that the road to recovery has quite a few potholes… mostly of my own making or, if I’m honest, mostly made of my own impatience. Yet, here again, in between times of wringing my neck for pushing the envelope, you have proudly worn a “cat that ate the canary look” with each positive step I take.
For me, two truths have come from this experience. First, I can no longer question if you love me or why you love me. I just need to know that you do, and as long as I know that, I can do just about anything. Secondly, our transplant battle may be the exclamation mark in our joint experiences to this point in time, but the truth is that over the past 20 years you have helped make me a better me. You have been there every step of the way encouraging, sanding down rough edges, assisting, challenging, supporting and loving me.
So, I thank you for helping me become the person I am today. I also thank you for helping me to not allow the bastards to win . . . for fighting for my life with me. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be here without everything you did to keep me alive. I am a very fortunate person! What an awesome gift from a beautiful, loving woman. There is no doubt that you are “the wind beneath my wings.”
* Editor’s Note: Sadly, Nikki Baumblatt lost her battle with her health issues in 2011. We in the community and Our Lives miss her every day.