On transplant day, I couldn’t help but feel excited. I’d released myself from worrying anymore about the transplant. It would either work or it wouldn’t and I had no real control over the outcome. My internal peace, however, was not shared by my family. They smiled for the camera, but fretted when unwatched. Anxiety and tension showed in their facial muscles — the clench of their jaw and furrow of their brow. They were, like me, eager for this day, which was such a long time in coming. The space was almost electric with anticipation, and some emotions I didn’t expect. Relief for finally being at this pivotal moment. Hope at facing the threshold of a new life. Joy that the hard part might soon be over.
Before the cells were infused, a process that took under an hour, the hospital chaplain entered the room to offer a blessing. We joined hands, forming a circle. The chaplain talked about Dad and Roger, how their presence was especially near to us; we prayed an ‘Our Father’ together; and she blessed the cells, asking that God guide them into the dark crevices of my bones to create new life where before there had only been death. Then she sang, an enormous sound of longing and praise that flowed through us, connecting and binding us to eachother and the moment. Even my atheist husband admitted to me later that he felt something move in the room as her music washed over us. Later that night, he wrote in my online transplant journal, “It amazed me how the presence of music can transform a space. The sounds of pumping machines just faded away as the room took on a spiritual quality.”
Years before, while struggling with the horrifying side-effects of the androgens, I turned to prayer. In the quiet darkness of the Allentown bedroom I shared with Joe, typically with tears coursing down my face, I asked God for help. “Please,” I begged. “Give me strength to deal with this. Please show me your plan.” I could not understand how to move through life in a body that I could not identify as my own. I could not manage the pain of losing parts of myself to a disease I could not control.
Later in Chicago, when the drugs lost effectivity and even monthly blood transfusions stopped working, my prayer became, “Please, God, I don’t want to die. Please do not let me die.” Each night I willed the prayer out and away from me, from beneath the loud whoosh-whooshing of my heartbeat, from inside my weak and broken body and into the universe.
There was nothing weak or broken or empty or even unsure in my bedazzled, hymn-filled hospital room the night of my transplant. The loneliness and desperation that kept me company during the dark nights of prayer in Allentown and later in Chicago had fled in the face of hope and gratitude.
Like so many events in my family in which religion is involved, after the cell-blessing ceremony, the party started. We celebrated with carton upon carton of Chinese take-out and bottles of bubbly drinks. Not the alcoholic kind, but that was fine because I got a shot of Benadryl.
I’d received Benadryl, or diphenhydramine, almost daily since arriving at the hospital. Used as a premedication to protect against allergic reaction to foreign agents Benadryl is also a hypnotic and a sedative. The very first time I received Benadryl delivered via infusion was during the great vaginal bleed of 1999. My doctors at the time told me it would make me woozy. As someone who’d by that time experimented with a fair number of narcotics and even a few hallucinogens, I figured the Benadryl wouldn’t register a tick in my inebriation experience. But cheap beer and ditch weed had nothing on hospital-grade pharmaceuticals. It had been the best buzz of my life. Unfortunately, the feeling quickly faded and within a half hour the floaty effect was replaced by insurmountable drowsiness.
In the little room, as I waited for the Benadryl to arrive from the pharmacy, Joe served me a heaping plate of sesame chicken and I started eating. Just a few bites in, however, a nurse entered my room and told us that the time had arrived — my medications were ready and we could start the process. As the nurse hung the bag of red cells, which looked strikingly similar to an ordinary bag of packed cells, she said, “You’re looking very pretty today!”
“Thanks!” I said, thinking of my lipstick.
“Red’s really your color,” she said, then, without hesitating, asked, “Are you ready?”
I didn’t hesitate, “Without a doubt.”
She checked the white, plastic identification bracelet on my wrist, asked me my name and date of birth. Then she administered the Benadryl.
My mostly uneaten food sat before me and I wanted to continue enjoying its sticky sweetness, but within a minute of receiving the infusion the world got wavy. I tried eating a little more food, but I lost my appetite. Instead, I enjoyed the extreme relaxation creeping out from my chest to my neck and arms, head and hips, hands and feet. Time seemed to slow and my family distracted themselves with small talk as we waited for the stem cells infusion to begin. A few minutes later, all eyes were on my nurse, who, with a big smile, released the valve from the bag of cells to the line that traveled my heart. We all watched as the dark red fluid made its way through the tube before disappearing into me.
After a moment, everyone looked at me, expectant.
“How do you feel — do you feel strange?” Mom asked. My mother, who was resolute in her belief that I was a miracle in progress, hoped to hear that I immediately feel better.
“I feel a little drunk,” I said with a grin. “But I’m good other than that.” The Benadryl was definitely working.
Fifteen minutes later my nurse returned to check my vitals and reported that everything was proceeding as planned. As she prepared to depart the room again, she said she’d return when the infusion bag was empty.
“Do you need anything right now,” she asked me.
“No, thanks, I feel good,” I told her sleepily.
Next, Autumn asked if I wanted to open a Christmas present early.
“No,” I replied. “I want to wait — you guys eat your food, I just want to watch.”
Then Joe approached and asked if I wanted everyone to leave so I could sleep.
“No, honey,” I said. “Thank you, I’m just going to close my eyes. I don’t want anyone to leave.
I let my eyes shut and lulled by my family’s voices, I drifted into a sleep that outlasted the party.