By Mike Taibbi
Sag Harbor — I was in a local grill having lunch with some pals when my cell phone started vibrating for attention. I was prepared to ignore it, my preferred habit as taking phone calls at a restaurant table has almost (but not quite) become a pet peeve of mine, when I saw the area code for the call’s origin. Nashville, Tennessee, where one of my very closest friends had received a liver transplant at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center not 48 hours earlier. It was him, Don Janney is his name, calling from his hospital bed, and of course I picked up the phone. It’s why that pet peeve business can’t be an absolute — there are times when the new intrusiveness of the latest technologies can be justified.
He slurred his words a bit, drugged against the pain he said wasn’t really that bad. In fact he said ‘I feel fine’ a couple of times, and guessed correctly that one of my lunch companions was Mike Landi, a local artist and fisherman Don had also come to know and like in recent years. I handed the cell phone to Mike, he and Don spoke for a minute or so, and then I stepped outside the restaurant to listen to everything and anything Don had to say to me.
It was a lot—he was rambling, one thought or observation after another just tumbling out without need of any response from me—and I was thrilled to hear it all because it was all about the experience of his surgery, his minute by minute emergence from the dark side, his prospects from here on in. It was all about living, when for nearly eight months as his physical condition deteriorated at alarming speed, Don’s pre-occupation had been with dying. In fact he’d come close several times.
When his energy for conversation was spent and he rang off, I stood outside for a minute or two in the bright midday sun, feeling elevated, almost laugh-out-loud giddy. Until you’re touched by a miracle it’s really just an overused word. When Don got the call from the hospital he was weeks away from dying and knew it. He’d phoned me before rushing off to get prepped to say he’d just endured the worst days and nights of his decline, new internal pains he was certain were evidence of some ancillary malady that would disqualify him for transplant, and anguish over his predicament that would not subside. In prior months, slipping into an understandable depression, he’d often spoken and written of his death as though it would be a welcome end to both the physical and psychological agony of a protracted wait with little hope. In those last days, he’d said, he was sure he couldn’t take much more…and then the call came.
Now he had an 85% chance of surviving one to five years, or longer. It was the ultimate second chance, when he was so close to the long goodbye.
* * *
Actually liver transplantation, though technically challenging and not without significant risk, isn’t seen as a medical miracle any longer. For three decades it’s been a widely-accepted treatment for end-stage liver disease, and 5-6,000 patients receive liver transplants each year in the U.S. alone, none of those procedures worth a headline unless the recipient happens to be notable…Mickey Mantle, Gregg Allman, Evel Knievel, as examples.
Don, like everyone else who receives the extraordinary gift of a donated human organ, is notable primarily to the people who know and love him. We’re the ones who’ve had to think about the ways in which his death would have diminished our lives… and who instead can now think again about how he’ll continue to enrich and delight us, as he so often has (when not exasperating us), an original of the species. We’re each a product of the whole of our individual lives but Don, the son of an eccentric actor father and a multi-lingual melodramatic mother, became a more interesting whole than any one person could expect to be. In the full flower of his life he too spoke several foreign languages well or at least passably; made himself expert in such diverse subjects as wines, gourmet cooking, photography, U.S. currencies, firearms and dance; and became devoted as a kind of intellectual Luddite to classic forms of the crafts he admired—the stories and golf musings of P.G. Wodehouse, movies like ‘Delicatessen’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ and so on.
And once he allowed himself to be dragged into the modern age of the computer and the Blackberry, the email addresses of his close friends became the targets of his regular blasts of criticism and social commentary. He’d rail against the erosion of the culture and the decline of communication skills in the new media age, fulminating in e-rage when a network newsreader described a committee meeting as “contentuous” or when a reporter leaning into the winds of a building hurricane said local residents were “battering down the hatches…” Don, who once carried himself with a literate Kerouac-ian insouciance and was as handsome as a neat sentence written in fine cursive, morphed in his later years into a gruff curmudgeon with deep suspicions about most of the ways the world around him was changing…an early 21st century knockoff of the early 20th century Charlie Chaplin tramp from the film “Modern Times.” In digital form or in person Don could be and often was a well-spoken blunt instrument, dangerously close (his intent, it turned out) to toppling the china and being unfit for polite company.
But only close; his charm and authentic generosity always won the day…just as his will to live prevailed by the closest of margins over his melancholy inclination to surrender to his damaged health…an inclination about which he was honest in his typically unfiltered way. To those who know him well, Don is the definition of a rare and particular kind of friend: someone who knows exactly who you are, and likes you anyway, and who’s unafraid to reveal exactly who he is and what he’s thinking in the moment, daring you to like him in return.
He’d convinced most of us, his friends, that he was ready to go, without ceremony or notice; in fact he’d told each of us in one unvarnished way or another, after he left his New York apartment for Nashville, where a college pal and his wife (a critical care nurse) would give him round-the-clock care, that he didn’t want any visitors until whatever happened happened. I won’t share his instructions to us, except to say they were dark and bitter. He’d retreated from all of us; we’d begun to mourn him.
And then, last week, he got the call.
* * *
“It’s showtime!!” his blast email said, before he left for the hospital. “All communications will be suspended as of now, until further notice. I love you all…”
I’d been reading a lot about liver transplants, and liver disease. I watched Don suffer through all the symptoms leading to end-stage liver failure…and he did suffer. Early in the summer my wife Siobhan and I had taken him sailing again, but even on a perfect day for it, the boat was just too much for him and he could no longer enjoy it. In the spring he dragged himself around the Barcelona Neck golf course on a couple of mornings, a short track he’d played a hundred times with me and other golfing pals, and when in July another friend invited us for a round at The National, the exquisite Southampton course Don had always wanted to play, he returned to the clubhouse after only three holes, unable any longer to even swing the club, and he was done with golf. No wine, few if any foods he liked, no recreations or diversions to steer him from his increasingly alarming self-view. He stopped coming out east to our house on weekends. He stopped believing he’d ever get a transplant if he stayed in New York. He packed a single small bag and flew to his friends in Nashville, and to whatever future was left for him.
What he found, after a much shorter time than he or any of us might have guessed, was that there might be a future for him after all. The real miracle, it turned out, was that long-established and constantly improving surgical techniques combined with a carefully designed waiting list meant that, assuming other health screening criteria, the sickest patients — like Don — would move toward the top of the waiting list and to the best chance at the best results. And because Don was also a rarer blood type there was an exponentially better chance that he’d get the call when a donor organ with compatible blood and tissue types became available.
In fact, though most liver transplant patients wait a year or more to receive a donor organ, nearly 10% not making it, Don was on the waiting list for less than three weeks.
* * *
Thinking about him the morning after that phone call from his ICU room, I opened my wallet and found the two dog-eared donor cards I’ve been carrying around since the last century, and wondered if they were still in force. Then I looked at my New York state driver’s license, and saw that it had the organ donor “heart” icon on it, so I guess I’m still a listed donor. I always thought it was a good idea and of course it is; in 2001, well after I’d signed on, my younger brother Steven got a heart transplant, and now one of the important friends in my life has a chance at more life because people keep signing up to be donors. It’s easy, all you have to do to join the New York Organ Donor network is to visit their website, www.DonateLifeNY.org.
As for me, I’m just happy that the next time I try a bit too hard to impress someone and roll out a multi-syllabic word that doesn’t quite fit, I might hear Don criticizing me once more for triggering a bout of hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia…which, as only he would know on the spot, means ‘…fear of long words.’
Really. That’s what it means.