And tell me which one we’re doing today?”
As I lay flat on my back, toes cold with a gown draped around my body, I stretched both hands toward the ceiling and formed two “L’s” with my thumb and index fingers.
I showed my letters proudly to the medical team huddled around me, smiling:
That’s what I do when I’m nervous. I make jokes. Only this time I was terrified, so the quips came in droves.
It’s standard procedure for a medical team to confirm surgery details with the patient before being wheeled into the operating room. The reason this was different, though, was that this was a surgery I didn’t actually need.
Two years prior, my dad started experiencing health issues. It started with sleepless nights, headaches, and a constant upset stomach. Then, struggles with high blood pressure and restlessness.
In less than a year, he’d dropped 50 pounds and progressed what looked like 20 years in age. Dad was eventually diagnosed with kidney failure, the cause largely unknown. The diagnosis sparked a series of events – dialysis treatments, medication, and regular tours through doctor’s offices. I was still in college when it all started.
It wasn’t until I’d graduated and moved back home to Cleveland in the summer of 2011 that I saw firsthand the toll the illness had taken. Dad couldn’t enjoy the things that most adults took for granted. Food tasted sour, fatigue was constant, and discomfort arrived daily.
The excitement of starting a career after graduation was subdued by the reality of a parent struggling with his health. Even though he did his best to internalize the responsibility to get better and avoided talking about his pain, his situation inevitably stripped away many freedoms he cherished and it put a strain on our family.
Back at work, I had the usual good days, bad days, so-so days, but coming home every night to watch dad’s battle served as a stark reminder of the shortness and fragility of life. My busy workday stood meager next to my father’s fight with illness, and the repeated exposure to this truth began to dilute the potency of work-stress.
I began to appreciate people more. I joined a golf league, started eating lunch every day in the office common space instead of my desk, and made it a point to start greeting each of my teammates with a simple “hello” every morning, as if to affirm that everyone was still present and healthy.
Yet, every day without a kidney meant less time that dad would be with us. According to the National Kidney Foundation, the average life expectancy for someone on dialysis is only 5-10 years. Soon, I was arrested by a single thought: I had the power to change the outlook of his life.
Humans only need one healthy kidney to survive. There are thousands of people living with only one kidney, and most lead normal, healthy lives. Some people are even born with only one and don’t find out until later in life. Since the first transplant in Boston in 1954, over 50,000 living donors have donated a kidney to people facing kidney failure.
Not surprisingly, data suggests that kidneys from living donors also last nearly twice as long as kidneys transplanted from deceased donors. By this point, my father had been on the national deceased donor wait list for nearly a year.
I faced a choice between action and inaction that could affect the existence of a person whom I cared deeply about. I could go through the steps to try and become a kidney donor, or wait for my father to receive one from a deceased donor, which would likely take years. The fear of slowly losing him while standing on the sidelines became overwhelming and sickening.
I had to help him get better, so I decided to get tested.
Over the next couple months, my health, blood, and overall donor compatibility were rigorously evaluated. Eventually, the results came back – my dad and I weren’t a match.
But thanks to the Cleveland Clinic who partners with a wonderful organization called the National Kidney Registry, a trade was worked out – a “paired exchange” where a donor gives his or her kidney to another recipient in exchange for a compatible kidney for their loved one. Yes, it’s a thing, and yes, it’s legal. You can learn about it here.
So, on June 19, 2012, I underwent surgery and donated my left kidney to a man in California. His surgery was performed that same day. I was told the kidney received a police escort to the airport before it hitched a flight to the West Coast – a visual that always makes me smile.
In return, my father received a healthy kidney from a woman in Boston. It was the same week as Father’s Day. I suppose a Kohl’s gift card just didn’t seem appropriate that year.
Usually, this is the part where people tell me “I could have never done what you did.”
And I disagree. Which brings me to my first point.
You are capable of more than you think.
When your back is against the wall or you’re faced with an opportunity that may not present itself again, you are capable of surprising yourself. I surely did.
The point at which I made the decision to donate was a “lightswitch” moment. A split second where I determined I would get tested and from that point on was fully committed.
To confirm my candidacy, I underwent CT scans, EKGs, other acronyms I don’t remember, and had my blood drawn nearly 20 times. One time I even had to drop my own blood off at a FedEx shipping center and mail it to California so it could be properly tested at the transplant site. Pro Tip: Kinko’s doesn’t ship human specimens. I tried.
The surgery itself kept me in the hospital for four days, where I endured overwhelming abdominal pain that lasted until I was discharged.
Take it from me, a guy who’s scared of needles (they had to break the smelling salts out on me once), that counting yourself out because of fear will prevent you from discovering what you’re capable of.
Now, this is an extreme example. We don’t all have to donate our kidneys to engage in selfless behavior. It’s the act of selflessness that holds true weight. Which brings me to my second point.
Compassion is underutilized.
In college, I developed an interest in Asian art, culture, and the study of Buddhism. This led me to take classes and even take a trip later with my brother to Hong Kong. What attracted me the most to this culture was the underlying concept of selflessness throughout its teachings.
In Sanskrit, Karuṇā translates to “any action that is taken to diminish the suffering of others.” It’s a concept I latched onto quickly and is one that helped compel me to undergo the surgery in the first place.
During my recovery, the Cleveland Clinic put me up in a swanky room all to myself. It had brand new amenities and I distinctly remember watching the Miami Heat win the 2012 NBA Finals on the room’s flat screen TV my last night there. LeBron won the MVP, which didn’t help the pain at the time.
I found out later that the Clinic tries to place donors in the newest, most private rooms when possible – a gesture to help reduce the suffering of those that engage in selfless behavior.
This selfless approach also applies to how we should act in business. One way to act compassionately is through servant-leadership, a set of teachings and practices that have been adopted by some of the world’s largest companies, and a topic that’s deep enough to warrant another blog post all on its own.
At its core, the servant-leadership mentality believes that “removing self-interest and personal glory from your motivation on the job is the single most important thing you can do to inspire trust.”1
Focus on the collective success of the team. Make an effort to reduce your team’s burdens in creative ways, find ways to help them be successful, and illuminate the team’s work through recognition. When your team senses the selflessness of these actions, a culture of confidence and trust will begin to develop.
When areas of opportunity need to be addressed with team members, this culture also helps ensure objective feedback and critique is more readily accepted. When your focus “is setting someone else up for success, your words tend to be received more openly.”1
In my own experience, celebrating wins – both big and small – while connecting with each employee will have a direct impact on the collective work produced by the team.
To say these things and believe in these concepts is one thing. In order to reinforce these concepts in life and in work, it’s important to plan and implement your actions. Which brings me to my final point.
Set some life landmines.
At times I’ve been referred to as a workaholic. So, I’ve had to sometimes set booby traps to remind myself what’s important.
Ever since the day of my surgery, I’ve worn a wristband on my left arm. First, it was a green band inscribed with “Donate Life.” Then, a new orange one emblazoned with “Love Your Kidneys.”
I wear it to keep that day in focus. I’m proud to tell my story when asked about it, but I mostly wear it as a physical reminder in times of stress that there are bigger things at play. That I am abundantly capable of doing good for others.
It’s the same reason I keep the below picture framed on my nightstand. My mother snapped it the moment I came home from the hospital and my dad and I shared an embrace. It marked the start of a new respect and appreciation between the two of us that still remains. This is what’s important.
Take some time to place landmines in your daily routine that help you step back and reflect on your values. Then, the hard part: find ways to put those values into practice. As a close friend told me, the first step is realizing what’s important; the second is planning and spending time doing what’s actually important.
Participating in sports is one landmine I set. Playing softball, kickball, and ultimate frisbee – three days per week – forces me to put down my laptop, get outside, and spend time with friends while meeting new people. If I don’t show up, my team is disappointed (at least I like to think so) and that landmine blows up in my face. A structured schedule and paying a league fee is a pretty good step-back tool for me.
One of my best friends told me about a podcast that recommended making a bet with a friend to do something you’ve always wanted to do. If you don’t follow through, you have to make a $100 donation to an organization that you’d hate to be a part of (i.e. a white supremacist society, Trump’s campaign, etc). A landmine that’s sure to motivate.
If you’re a son, daughter, a loving parent or a genuine friend, you’re already winning in someone’s eyes. And even though some things (like kidney failure) you can’t plan for, I encourage you to find ways to remind yourself of what’s important and then put those reminders into practice.
This past June marked 5 years since the surgery – the low end of the average life expectancy for someone on dialysis. As I sit here in a new city, with new friends and a new job, I find myself reflecting back on that day more often. I’m still looking to set landmines, spend time with those who help reinforce my values, and not let the demands of work guide my life choices.
I don’t look at my wristband as much as I used to, or the picture on my nightstand as often. Keeping these values top of mind involves effort, and this post is exactly that – an effort to stay focused on what I value.
I believe this story has something to offer others. I hope it lends some perspective against the consuming busyness of everyday life. I hope you consider taking a moment to re-focus and re-orient, and reflect on what’s important…on who is important. It’s an exercise I started 5 years ago and am still working on today.
Know that you’re capable of achievements broader than what you can foresee. Find ways to act compassionately, and ways to remind yourself to stay on course.
We don’t all have to donate our kidneys to engage in selfless behavior. But, each day we are given new opportunities to positively influence the lives of others. You can always make a choice to be better than you’ve historically been. In the words of influencer Tony Robbins, “the past does not equal the future.” It’s the accumulation of these choices that will eventually define us.
How can you give your kidney, in little ways, every day? If you do, you’ll start indirectly impacting your own well-being.
And that’s no joke.
P.S. You might be wondering how dad is doing today. From what I can see, he’s doing just fine.
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