By Linda Gromko, MD
Linda Gromko's book, entitled "Let Me Go When the Banter Stops," is a doctor's own heartrending story of her husband's losing battle with kidney and heart disease. The couple met on an Internet dating site after Linda, a Seattle area physician, wrote “I’d like to meet a nice Democrat,” and then matched with Steve, a Bainbridge Island businessman and the father of a nine-year-old daughter. When he plummeted abruptly into the abyss of end stage renal failure, Linda and Steve chose to go ahead with their wedding plans. Here is an excerpt from Linda's memoir of their journey:
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I found the Quiet Room again, this time at 2:00 a.m. I was shivering with the early morning chill, and with fear. I hadn’t eaten for hours. I took a flannel bath blanket from the Radiology Department linen storage, and draped it around my shoulders for warmth. I had no money for the vending machines, and there was no coffee in sight. Steve’s broad titanium wedding band rested heavily on my ring finger, creating a double ring as it nested with mine.
The Quiet Room was a ten-foot square; its stark concrete gray walls were oddly splashed with abstract black graphics. There was a sign that read, “Please feel free to use prayer rugs,” but there were no prayer rugs to be found. Perhaps it was like kidneys: best to bring your own. Burgundy Bibles had been set out on the end tables, and there were eight angular waiting room chairs that offered little physical comfort in those darkest of hours.
The Quiet Room did offer a phone, and I sensed that bad news was often received and dispersed there. But there was no one I wanted to call; there was nothing I wanted to say. The only person I wanted to talk to in the entire universe was Stephen. There was nobody else who could offer me any meaningful comfort. I got up and walked around a little. I went to the bathroom, but I didn’t want to be away from that critical phone for very long. I paced. I sighed.
I knew there was nothing I could offer now. And there was nothing anyone could offer me. In that desperate hour, I was totally, heartbreakingly alone. I had sent the only man who had ever truly known me and loved me off to the operating room after two heart attacks and two recent surgeries, now with an arterial bleed that could be arrested only through the perilous grace of two exhausted surgeons.
There would be no easy answer here: no simple solution and no happy ending anywhere in sight.
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At about 4:30 a.m., Drs. Baker and Halverson appeared in the Quiet Room doorway. Still in their blue scrubs, they looked somber and drained. It had been a full night and they undoubtedly had a full day of surgeries ahead of them.
“Well, your husband’s okay,” said Dr. Halverson, taking one of the angular chairs across from mine. “But we couldn’t save the donor kidney.”
Teresa’s kidney was gone! After five weeks of worry and concerted evaluations, after five weeks of life-threatening complications, new problems, and ever-more-dangerous interventions, the kidney — Teresa’s kidney — was gone! It wasn’t as though it was a cadaver kidney, which is a marvelous, socially responsible thing to recycle. It was a living kidney from a selfless woman who put Steve’s horror above her own welfare, and gave away a kidney that she herself might need someday!
Every now and then, it struck me that Steve was receiving all that medicine had to offer: the tried and true, the innovative, and all things beyond. There was absolutely no denying how terribly, terribly sick Steve was.
And now and again, I would simply decompensate, with big tears rushing from my eyes, my breathing coming in staccato gasps. I would just rest my head against Steve’s bed rail — when I could get close enough. The nurses would rub my shoulders as I cried.
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Editor's note: After the failed kidney transplant and a major open-heart surgery, Steve developed a little-understood condition called 'critical illness myopathy.'" This rendered him fully disabled. Dr. Gromko describes the achingly difficult process of trying to get Steve up and moving, below:
At one point, he was in a Kermit-green sling — fortified with blue Chux underpads, and swinging in the competition of his life. He had the effort, no doubt. But his lower legs approximated the girth of my forearms, his sharp tibial bones defining the contours. Back in the day, Steve’s legs were defined by powerful gastrocnemius muscles and mighty quads. Not this day.
A wave of nausea flowed over me. It was all so bracing. Three therapists and a nurse couldn’t get Steve upright on his own, not without the considerable assistance of a Golvo lift. Could a man come back from this degree of debility?
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Editor's note: Eventually, Steve didn't come back. Yet Linda wrote at the end of her book that while their time together was short, just over six years, "it was packed with purpose, humor, banter and love." She also wrote that in her time with Steve she came to recognize her fervor "as an advocate for reasoned, compassionate healthcare." Finally, she wrote that her stepdaughter, Brita, was her "bonus child" and her "reward." This copyright material is reprinted with the permission of the author. Linda Gromko, MD can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.LindaGromkoMD.com.