A Son’s Journey

Jeremy O’Brien
Son of Second Wind St. Louis Members
Tom and Jenny O’Brien
February, 2007

The time leading up to my father’s transplant was filled with fear, hope, and faith. My father endured many trying stays in the hospital. Understanding how his health could be improved was difficult. This had a great impact on our family. There was a very limited range of improvement expected without a transplant.

I was in high school when my father first began having serious health issues. My grandmother had endured health problems of her own and the need arose for her to live with us in our home. This was a challenge for the entire household. We had to make some major changes to accommodate my grandmother and we all became caretakers for her. Eventually, my grandmother’s health worsened and we were unable to care for her. We had to move her into a facility where she could get the care she needed. Very soon after, my father’s health worsened.

I think caring for my grandmother enabled all of us to have a better grasp of the concept of dealing with the illness of a family member. My mother is a nurse and taking care of the sick is her business. However, I was still unsure of how to help. At times, it was frustrating for me. I wanted to help and often did not know what I could do to ease not only my father’s pain, but also the strain health issues cause a family. The individuals who create a family often unravel in times of strife. I am happy that no matter how frustrated or difficult the situation, we all were able to place an epic amount of importance on family. I know each individual family member had times of stress that seemed insurmountable. All of us were able to return to the core idea of family, even if we strayed from it.

I hate to admit weakness and at the time, for me, as a teenager, there were times it was very difficult to overcome selfishness. I wanted a normal family. I wanted to be able to do the things my friends were able to do. I wanted to do things my father had done with his father at my age. I wanted to wake up and find everything normal again. I had to face this weakness of mine, along with many others, on my father’s journey to better health.
I graduated from high school and remained living at home. I soon was working three jobs, making quite a bit of money for my age and the time period, and thought I had found the love of my life. I was faced with a big decision. My father helped to persuade me, and thankfully, I made a wise choice to go to a local university rather than continuing working as much and found that the supposed love was not true.

At the time, I thought this would be beneficial for my family and myself. I quickly learned it was neither. I think, at times, I caused more problems by being there than I helped. I was a teenager. I had difficulty my second semester and again had to make a major decision. I felt a great deal of guilt for my behavior when my father’s strength should have been dedicated to his health, but instead, he was dealing with my life issues. I went away to school and our relationship strengthened. It is funny how distance can help at certain junctures of life. Though his health was not improving, the possibility of a transplant was becoming real. I think the fact I was doing well helped ease some my father’s worries.

I graduated with my B.S. and I remember how glad I was to have my family present at my graduation. It was something I often feared my father would miss. I soon acquired my first “real” job. As my life began to pick up speed, my father’s life was slowing to a crawl. It seemed there was not a time in the day when my father could be himself. He was taking medicine in the form of a nebs., or changing his oxygen tank, or coughing to the point of exhaustion. It seemed he could not even fully laugh when he found something funny. Everything was restrained. His conversations were slowed as were his other physical abilities. Walking to the refrigerator was a task and steps were a planned event. Going up or down stairs required an immense amount of time and effort. He was doing all he could, but his illness had trapped him. His involvement at Barnes-Jewish created a drive to be at his healthiest that his illness would allow.

Education was a major priority. I have learned throughout my life that knowledge is a great equalizer when facing an unknown obstacle. Once we learned a transplant was a possibility, I, along with the rest of my family, learned as much as we could about the “list” process, the surgery, and post-operation expectations. This helped to alleviate some of the fears we had. Once he was placed on the “list,” some of that fear was heightened; though, hope coupled the fear.

While hope was present, the twenty-two months my father was listed were trying. Though educated on the subject, fear of the unknown is tremendous. At times, I felt trapped in a real Catch-22. I wanted my father to have the transplant more than anything, but again, I selfishly feared what would happen if it went wrong somehow. We all had to face the reality of the surgery. Realizing the risks and the quality of my father’s life were major factors.

All of this mental anguish was going on as my father still struggled to survive to the time of the call or the beep/buzz of the garage-door opener-sized pager. I remember my parents being jumpy every time the phone rang when I visited. I, as well, was jumpy in my own home when the phone rang. It really could, and did, occur without warning.

The strange thing about being listed is that initially, everyone tries to figure out when it could happen-who is already listed? What is their body size and blood type? Who was transplanted last month? Last week? Yesterday? Then, after a certain amount of time, I began to wonder if it really was going to happen. Twenty-two months is a long time to remain optimistic. Understandably, my father’s spirits fluctuated. He was trying to stay strong, healthy, and ready when the time came. Thankfully, as she had been with my grandmother, my mother kept us all focused. She is the only person I know who can make a seemingly hopeless situation feel attainable. Her strength helped all of us through the entire process to reach the goal. She never ceased having faith not only in my father, but also in the process, the surgery, and recovery that would follow. She never had any doubts-or at least, she never revealed them to me. She embodied faith and still does.

The call finally came. I was just waking up for work when my mother called. Her voice was filled with excitement as she told me they received the call and it was real. She gave me all of the details of where and when to meet her. I went about the task of going to work to prepare my lessons for a substitute and then tried to keep my car under the speed limit as I raced to the hospital. My sister was already there along with my mother when I arrived. Much of the pre-operation preparation had taken place and the time for the surgery was near. I was feeling nearly every emotion I have-and all were crashing together inside of me at rapid speed. We knew the risks and we also knew the possibilities. Fear had to be pushed aside in order to allow hope and faith to take over.

While waiting for the completion of my father’s surgery, I could not concentrate on much. I had brought several things with me to try to occupy my time, but none worked well. I tried to read, grade papers, etc. Nothing seemed to keep my mind from running the dozens of possibilities. Thankfully, the time did go by and my father came through the surgery well. The doctors, nurses, and all of the other employees of Barnes-Jewish did a tremendous job caring for my father. I am forever indebted to all those involved for saving his life and providing my family with many years together.

The recovery was much easier than the wait, though it was not without challenge. I realized there would be a lengthy time of recovery, but it was filled with the knowledge that the surgery was over. My father soon was able to do many of the things he was kept from while enduring his illness. Though still somewhat restrained by concerns from outside illness, he was, and is, able to do things anyone without a transplant can do.

I recall many firsts after my father’s surgery. This included simple things like going out to eat without wheeling a cart strapped with oxygen. We were able to work on things around the house together-rather than me poorly trying to follow his instructions. We were able to go fishing again. We were able to go to events and walk around freely. He was now able to walk with pride at an event where one year previous, he had to ride in a scooter. We could all jump in a vehicle and go anywhere we wanted without worry. The surgery and his recovery really created freedom for him to live again.

I remember the first time after his surgery that I went motorcycle riding with my father. It was one of the greatest feelings I have ever had. Each of us on our own bike, enjoying the open air and freedom a motorcycle allows was tremendous. It was much different than the times when he was sick. I also remember that somehow, he taught me to ride his bike when he was still sick. Then, there we were riding along as if he never had a sick day in his entire life.

My father’s surgery was also a wake-up call of sorts for me in my own life. I had given up on a relationship with my then-girlfriend and my father’s surgery helped show me the importance of love. I reconciled with her and she is now my wife and mother of my son.

My father was able to be present for my wedding, my sister’s wedding, the birth of my son, the birth of my niece and nephew, and many happy times I never thought would be possible. We are able to enjoy times together-birthdays, holidays, or just plain days. We can just “goof off” and hang out without worry-my visits never have finality like they once did. I still never know if it will be the last time I see or hear from my father, but one never knows this. What once was a great possibility is now lessened. Obviously, it has changed my father’s life-he has a life. However, as is true of most things, one life cannot be touched without impacting many others. Family has always been paramount in our lives, and without this life-changing event, who knows what would have happened? I always say I would never trade any of my experiences-good or bad. I may not be who I am without them. I know I would not be, nor would any of the people involved be, the same without my father’s transplant.