Shortly after I finished nursing school in Louisiana, I moved out of state. It was the summer of 1995. I had been a nurse for only 3 months and secured a job in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at a nationally known transplant center. I was a mere 20 years old and knew that an amazing road was awaiting me.
A couple of years later, I took a promotion as a heart/lung transplant coordinator. To say that it was an eye opening experience would be an understatement. It was my first time I worked closely with patients through the entire transplant process, not just the brief hospital stay after a transplant. I experienced the emotions of the patients and their families as they anxiously awaited approval to be placed on the transplant list. I also feared with my favorite patients that they would die before an organ became available.
What I didn’t expect was how people viewed and experienced life after a transplant. I assumed that life would return to normal. So one day shortly after I was in my new role, I was sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch. A man tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was the new transplant coordinator. I relied, “Yes sir, I am.” And then he stated very simply, “I’m #456.” “What?” I asked.
You see this man was told that he was transplant #456. He received the 456th heart transplant at that hospital. That wasn’t the problem- that was a fact. The problem is that he didn’t introduce himself to me by his name. Rather he identified himself as his number. And he wasn’t the only person to identify him/herself by their number.
I left that position before my maternity leave with my first child, Rebecca. Shortly after Rebecca’s birth, I found myself in the middle of a divorce. (You can read about that here). I found myself at the age of 24 needing a divorce attorney and “Bill” was recommended by several people. Bill became my attorney and he was a pistol. But he was great at what he did. Bill loved his family, his secretary, and his career. As opposed to many of the people I met in my position, you would never have known that he had received a heart transplant many years prior. I had never seen him at the hospital and we didn’t even talk about transplant life for quite some time.
When we finally discussed it, he told me that it had been a difficult decision for him to accept a heart transplant. He emphatically stated that he refused to accept a heart from a donor, only to later waste it whining about problems with his anti-rejection drugs, biopsies, or ugly scars. He chose to have the transplant because he simply wanted more time with his wife, children, and career. He wasn’t going to disrespect the gift he had been given. I loved that about him.
Fast forward six years later to when I was recovering from cancer. The first year after treatment was complete was tough as Jeff and I were struggling to find our new normal with kids who were 2, 3, and 7 years old. The meals stopped coming from friends and family. Jeff’s law work hours resumed. Medical bills started pouring in. And my hair went from gray/white to red and wavy. I looked like Simon LeBon from the 80s group Duran Duran. It wasn’t a good look friends.
The reality of life after cancer had begun to sink in. There were moments that year that I felt sorry for myself. I was tired and exhausted. The adrenaline from the fight with cancer had worn off shortly after my treatment was complete.
Shortly before I hit my one year anniversary date of remission, I had a life changing moment in the grocery store. I was unloading my grocery cart at the checkout counter. I couldn’t make out exactly what the female customer was saying to the male employee but I could tell he wasn’t very interested in her message. After she left he rolled his eyes at me and stated, “She is the most miserable person that I have ever met. She beat cancer and all she ever talks about is about all of her other problems. I’ve never met a person who complains more than her. She’s really not living.”
I just stared at him and was completely silent. And that in and of itself, is a miracle my friends. I’m not the silent type. I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. And as I drove home with tears staining my cheeks, I asked myself…
Am I becoming a legacy of cancer rather than Jenny, a lover of all things red, travel, and tangerine jelly bellies?
Am I becoming a number rather than praising God for more time with my three children?
Am I becoming a victim with multiple scars and weight from steroids, or Jenny, who has so much more living left to do?
The responsibility is mine. Solely mine. It still is. I believe that illness, divorce, or other problems can create fear and bitterness and can trap you if you allow it. Sometimes it is something that pulls you back in when you least expect it. Please let me encourage you to fight this. It is up to each of us to decide what we want to be defined by.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not wrong to talk about your story or try to serve and encourage others. Just don’t let it consume you to the point that you forget to move forward. It will paralyze you. It will choke you. I have seen this with my patients and some fellow friends that have battled disease and divorce. I have felt this at times on my own journey through cancer and divorce.
I know that is not what God wants for my life. I don’t want that for my life.
I am not just a number. I am not just a cancer survivor.
I am Jenny, a wife to Jeff, a mom to 4 crazy kids, a daughter, a sister, and a friend to many amazing people. I will be a world wide traveler, a dancer, and I will continue to get the most out of life until I breathe my last breath.
Life is good. Life is so good.