It won’t surprise most of you when I say I LOVE BIRTHDAYS! Especially my own.
As a child I always appreciated birthdays. Having divorced parents, I always got TWO celebrations, cakes, parties, gifts etc… You get the point. It was always awesome and I may have gotten a little spoiled by it over the years. (Being the baby didn’t help the situation). The thing I never really understood though was WHY your birthday was so important.
It wasn’t until I was in college, and sick, that I began to understand the true meaning of a birthday and became one of those people who make a big ol’ deal out of it.
That shift occurred right before my 21st birthday.
About 6 months prior to turning 21 I learned that my FSGS had progressed to a point where I was in Stage 5 kidney failure. Pretty much this means that you are in the last stage of kidney failure, also known as End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), your kidneys have lost nearly all their ability to do their job effectively, and eventually dialysis or a kidney transplant is needed to live.
Once I had progressed to this point I had to drop out of school (the first time), move back home with my family and start dialysis while I waited for a kidney. I knew the quickest way to a new (to me) healthy kidney would be through familial testing to see who would be a good blood and tissue match.
I was SUPER lucky and the first person to get tested was a match! With that, we started down the long and arduous journey through what seemed like a million tests and doctors visits to ensure my donor and I were both healthy enough to undergo the surgery.
I did end up on dialysis, but only through the grace of God, for a short 3 months- then came transplant time. On May 13th, 2003, a short two weeks before I turned 21, I was given a new lease on life when my Dad gave me his kidney. Not only had he given me life 21+ years earlier, here he was doing it again. The surgery was a success and we both left the hospital within a week. I had complications that I later found out were due to the almost immediate recurrence of FSGS that started to affect my new kidney, but I was still able to go home.
There a few things I should mention about transplants, not just kidneys but in almost all cases:
- Your body reacts to the new organ, tissue or whatever as being a foreign entity and naturally tries to fight it off which would lead to rejection.
- To keep your body from rejecting the transplant you are put on a heavy dose of immune suppressing medications so your body won’t reject it.
With all of the anti-rejection medications I was on my body wasn’t trying to kill my new kidney, but along with that came the fact that my body could no longer fight off any kind of foreign bacteria either. The result of this being that after you are released from the hospital and return home you are pretty much stuck there for about 3 months as your body adjusts to the new organ and you slowly lower the doses of the anti-rejection medications.
So, there I was, turning 21, a big birthday in just about everyone’s book.
I had looked forward to this day for years.
The day I could buy alcohol.
It makes me laugh now… but at the time it was a HUGE deal. For me though, there was no midnight drink, there was no drink at all. If I even wanted to leave the house I had to wear a mask. But dammit I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. I was determined to mark the occasion somehow.
My girlfriend was in town visiting me and she helped me do just that. She drove me to the grocery store, I couldn’t drive because I was still on pain medication, to buy alcohol for the FIRST time. I didn’t care I had to wear a mask. It was MY DAY and I was going to do what I wanted.
So, we sauntered into the store, headed straight to the liquor section and picked up a four pack of Bartles & Jaymes (NO judgements okay… I was a newbie, I didn’t know any better). I walked straight up to the cashier with my B&Js in one hand and my ID (which now unlocked access to this whole new world) in the other. I handed them to the cashier and stared her straight in the eyes as she looked at the ID, looked back at me, the ID again, then rang me up.
I must have looked insane. Walking around in my mask with only my eyes peeking out trying to buy booze I wasn’t even able to drink. But, wow, did I feel proud walking out of that store with my newly, legally purchased booze.
I had just undergone the worst surgery of my life (at least at that point in life) and I wasn’t going to let something as silly as no immune system stop me from having a good time.
That was also the first time I had ever really stopped to reflect on lucky I was to turn a year older.
I had just stared death in the face and beat it.
Little did I know at the time that it wouldn’t be the only birthday I couldn’t celebrate properly.
A short 8 months later I was back on dialysis, due to recurrent FSGS, and had started to wean off of the anti-rejection meds. Turns out the doctor’s weaned me off too quickly and I started to reject my kidney. As May rolled around again, I was super sick (again), had to drop out of school (again) and was back in the hospital. I ended up having to have the new kidney removed and somehow developed pancreatitis along the way.
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas and the main treatment is fasting. As in, not only can you not eat, you can’t drink any liquids, or consume anything by mouth AT ALL. You can’t ingest anything, because everything comes back up. It’s painful and just all around awful. I had to have a tube put up my nose, that went down my throat and into my stomach to remove everything. It was pretty much the worst thing ever. I felt like I was choking on something 24/7, I couldn’t eat or drink and generally felt sick the whole time.
Due to the pancreatitis my hospital stay post surgery ended up lasting a few weeks. So, there I was 1 year later back in the hospital, only this time it extended through my birthday. On my big day all of the nurses were so sweet. They brought me a cupcake, sang me happy birthday, then promptly took the cupcake away. I wasn’t allowed to eat it! Apparently birthday cupcakes count as food. Ugh! (I hoped they were like birthday/holiday calories… they don’t count.)
There I was 22, in a hospital crying in frustration from being sick, knowing my dreams had died with that kidney and super sad I couldn’t eat a cupcake. Anyone who has had to fast for an extended period of time, knows it brings out a whole new level of HANGRY! Seriously, BEWARE. You don’t want to be anywhere near them. I definitely owed a few people apologies for being so nasty to them But, I was alive, I had made it another year, and I wasn’t giving up.
In the years that followed I learned to appreciate each birthday that rolled around more and more. I WAS ALIVE! I was kicking ass and taking names! I made it!
Since those early bad birthdays I’ve had some pretty spectacular ones and some really terrible ones too. Like when I turned 30 and all my best friends from all my walks of life came together to party in Las Vegas (one of my best ones)! Or, in 2005, when a couple of my friends came to visit me in Sacramento, we were supposed to do a boating day on the Sacramento River, but (and there usually is one), due to a nasty infection we stayed in my apartment all weekend where I was doubled over in excruciating abdominal pain and ended up in the ER by the end of it. I was admitted and spent yet another birthday at the hospital (one of the worst ones).
You know what.
I made it through.
I kept fighting.
I never gave up.
So here I am, the birthday girl, celebrating life. Celebrating my friends and family who have gotten me through each year with a smile on my face. Celebrating that I’ve come this far. Celebrating that I made it through these past 18 years and knowing that nothing can stop me now.
To all of you who hate your birthday, I implore you to rethink that and view it as a privilege.
Each day we wake up is a gift. Each breath we take gives us fuel to keep going, keep fighting, and keep believing in our ability to conquer anything.
“My belief is that it’s a privilege to get older – not everybody gets to get older” – CAMERON DIAZ
“I am of the mindset that it’s a blessing to grow old. That if your face has lines around your eyes and mouth it means you’ve laughed a lot. I pray I look older in 10 years, cause that will mean I’m alive.” – Pink
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter” – RAMONA SINGER
~ Bridget (BIRD)