When I was a chaplain intern at UCLA Medical Center, I entered the lives of strangers at the worst possible moments. In those dark hours, when a patient was dying, I would show up, a stranger, an unfamiliar face and voice and touch. In the beginning, I dreaded those visits, viewing myself as a poor substitute for the comforting intimacy of family and friends. I felt helpless to help.
Then I learned an important spiritual lesson from one of those strangers and never looked at life the same way again. She was dying of kidney failure, and her only hope was a transplant. Every day, 18 people in this country die waiting for an organ donation. I waited with her, and prayed with her, and finally said with a sigh, “I wish I could do something more than this.”
“You can,” she said. “You can do so much more.”
At her deathbed, I made a promise that I would be a living kidney donor, as soon as time and circumstances would permit.
Over a decade later, when my children were grown, I made good on that promise. I went back to UCLA and offered my kidney to whoever needed it the most. “A stranger?” people said to me. “You would do this for a stranger?” I never understood why the same act made sense if it helped someone I knew but was shocking if it helped someone I’d never met.
“What do you know about this person who is getting your kidney?” people asked.
“That he will die without it,” I answered. It was all I needed to know.
On November 5, 2010, my kidney flew on its first trip without me, nestled in the pilot’s cabin, front row seat, on its own journey. I spent less than 24 hours in the hospital, and the after-pain was sweetly familiar; it was the same pain I’d felt after my children were born by cesarean. My kidney was taken through that faded scar, once again granting me the privilege of giving life, in my late 50s!
I met the man who got my kidney many months later, on a bright, sunny California day when he was well enough to travel. Although we had never exchanged photos, we immediately recognized each other in the crowded restaurant. I went toward his open arms, both of us laughing and crying at the same time as we connect with life: my life, his life, all life. I will carry that feeling with me every moment that I continue to breathe, knowing it will hold me up during my own dark hours, this priceless gift that a stranger gave me in her last moments on earth.
Jacquelin Gorman is the author of The Seeing Glass.