The Abridged Version
It was a balmy Thursday morning in a Canberra hospital. After 12 hours of screaming like a possessed banshee, Terri Klemm could finally relax, she had given birth to her 3rd and final child. The comfortable silence that had settled across the room was quickly shattered by a shrill scream which reverberated throughout the halls, calling attention to its self. A cry that announced to the world, attention kings and queens, noble folk and peasants alike, Ash Klemm has arrived!
The relief felt through the hospital was palpable, after having my twin die in the womb. Me being breached, there were concerns I would not make it, but there I was, hungry, crying, and bare ass naked, there was no need to stress anymore.
“I’m sorry Mrs Klemm, your son won’t survive past 2 years.” Words no parent wants to hear. Words that shatter your happy little life, the dreams and hopes you had for him are crushed. My mum was devastated as she looked down at me. In contrast, I was happy playing and drooling, oblivious to the serious and (for me) potentially fatal conversation going on around me. She looked at the doctor and asked the same question any parent would ask at a time like this. “Why?” Why? A 3-letter word that carries with it the weight of everything wrong in the world.
The doctor informed mum I had been diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. A rare genetic illness which affected the lungs and digestive system. He explained my life from now on would be one filled with pills, physio, hospital visits, and most likely a premature death.
Mum went home, with a bag full of pills, pamphlets, and a determination not to let her son become another statistic. All the while, I was most likely sucking on my favourite stuffed toy and loving it.
In defiance of the doctor’s grim prediction, I survived passed 2 years. Every year doctors predicted this would be my last. Every year we would prove them wrong. My life was filled with pills, hospital visits, and physio, but, thankfully, death had kept his distance. It was, for the most part, a happy childhood that grew into content adulthood.
At the beginning of March 2014, I was slowly recovering in hospital from a virus that was determined to introduce me to the grim reaper. At that moment, struggling to breathe, feeling weaker than my will power when I am around chocolate, all I wanted was it to end one way or another. As I lay there, in an oxygen-starved daze, Dr David Serisier walked in to have a talk. David was a fit, confident doctor, whose knowledge in lung disease and particularly Cystic Fibrosis was second to none. He had been my doctor for 15 years, so to me, he was just David. He entered my hospital room the same way every time, two quick knocks of the open door and then stride in, with a grin on his face, usually followed by a herd of student doctors, nurses, and registrars, but this time he was alone.
“I honestly wasn’t sure if you were going to make it this time” he explained as a way of greeting, out of breath from trying to sit up, I simply nodded.
“We need to have a chat, and you need to start thinking about what you want to do, you can’t take many more hits like this. It is time you start thinking seriously about having a lung transplant.”
His tone was transparent, there was no thinking about it, he expected me to agree to have a lung transplant, in his mind, there was no debate. But in mine, there was, “do I want to keep on fighting to live?” I asked myself, I was so tired of this constant battle, it would be so much easier to let it all go.
It is a tough question many people may face in their lives, continue to fight, or just submit and let it all go. It becomes harder when the man who has spent so much time and effort trying to keep you alive is standing at the edge of your bed looking at you, and all you can think to say to him is, “I think I want to die.”
“I want to say no,” I told mum, it was 2 months after I had spoken with David, he had convinced me to at least go through the assessment procedure in case I changed my mind. “Whatever you decide, we will support you,” Mum replied, I looked into her eyes, I could see the sadness and the hurt, she wanted me to say yes to the transplant, she wanted me to choose life, but she didn’t understand, how could she? She didn’t have to wake up at night coughing so hard it caused her to blackout. She didn’t have to set her alarm half an hour earlier in the morning to face the onslaught of coughs that shook her entire body, leaving her exhausted and unable to breathe. She didn’t have to stop to rest after walking for 50 metres because she was out of breath. I was tired, I wanted off this train, I wanted it to be over.
Unwillingly ripped from my slumber, to be confronted with something I could only register as “not silent”. Still, half asleep, my brain managed to comprehend there was noise. But, I could not understand why there was noise. After a brief second, the part of me that was slightly more awake realised it was my phone, I checked the time, it was 1 a.m. on the 17th of July 2015, “Unknown number” kept flashing on my screen, while the theme song to James Bond interrupted the early morning silence.
“Hello?” I manage to croak out.
“Hi Ash, it’s Kathy, the lung transplant coordinator, we need you to get here as soon as you can, we have some donor’s lungs, and they are a match!”
“Ok, see you soon, thanks.”
As I hung up the phone I lay back down, completely void of emotion, this was it, was I ready for this? Could I just go back to sleep and pretend I didn’t get the call, just wake up tomorrow like nothing happened? It had been a bit over a year since David had mentioned the idea of having a lung transplant to me. It had been a month and 14 days since they found David’s body unresponsive in his apartment. And despite the best effort of medical professionals, he was unable to be resuscitated. David’s funeral was one of the biggest I had been to, filled with friends, family, medical professionals, and patients, so many people’s lives changed because of him.
Many friends and family had spoken to me, trying to convince me to go ahead with the transplant. To a degree, they had all succeeded. However, in the end, it was the loss of a man who had worked so hard to get me on that list. Who no matter how sick I was, he took great delight in taunting me about accidentally shaving off my beard. A man who I had respected my entire adult life. I couldn’t refuse it, not now. I couldn’t make a mockery of his life by refusing my one and only second chance, not after the effort he had put into keeping me alive. I took a deep breath and dialled another number, the phone was answered on the first ring.
“It’s time to go.”
Beep… Beep… Beep…
The machine kept a steady rhythm, it wasn’t going to be the next big summer dance track. Still, it was one I was happy to hear, it let me know I was alive, I had made it through the surgery, and I was slowly regaining consciousness. Unfortunately, I soon realised regaining consciousness after having your lungs ripped out and new ones shoved in, is probably only marginally better than being sodomised by an angry bear wearing a pine cone prophylactic. Pain tore through my body, everywhere hurt and the places that didn’t hurt felt weaker than an anti-vaxxers argument against science. I opened my eyes to see my family surrounding me. As they noticed my eyes open, I saw their look of concern be washed away by joyful relief. They had been fretting, waiting by the phone, from the moment I was wheeled into the operating theatre, till the time the surgeon called 10 hours later to tell them it had all gone well. They tried to talk to me, but the tube coming out of my mouth from my lungs was making conversation difficult, well, that and the copious amount of drugs the hospital had me on.
They decided to leave promising to return later that day or tomorrow, as they left I allowed my head to fall back, my eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, a volley of thoughts began to crash through my mind, like an angry sea that harbingers a violent storm. “What have I done? I can’t handle this, I don’t want this, take it back!” Over and over again, I felt despair begin to wash over me, the decision I had felt so sure of just two weeks ago, now felt like a monumental mistake. An error in judgement on everyone’s behalf, how could we not see that I couldn’t handle this, there must have been a mistake in the paperwork. The darkness threatened to overwhelm me, and as I started to let it swallow me, I saw a brief shining of light, like the early morning sun rays after a night of terror. I thought about how my family looked at me 10 minutes ago, they were here for me, they loved me, they wanted me to live. “I will get through this for them, I will get through this for me,” I decided.