The Hero in You

 A while back on Ellie’s 10 –year retrospective post she mentioned – casually and in passing – that she’d donated a kidney to her father. She even posted a picture of her gigantic scar. If you’ve never read Me, You and Ellie  this “Let’s Call it a Decade” post is a good post to start with. All three of these women lead remarkable lives.

Anyway, when I read about her giving up one of her kidneys to save her father’s life, I thought, “Wow, that is incredibly amazing and brave and selfless.” And then I wondered if I would be able to do something like that. Because my generosity has never been challenged to such an extent. In fact, overall, I’ve led a pretty self-centered life.

Becoming a parent can be said to be an act of selflessness, because lord knows you give up a lot of yourself mentally, physically, materially and every other way from before that child is even brought into the world until forever. But in at least as many, if not more ways, becoming a parent is also a very selfish act. The balance, I suppose depends on what sort of parent you are.

So other than the arguably selfless act of becoming a parent, and the one time when I sort of almost saved my child’s life[1] maybe, I haven’t done anything that could be considered really altruistic.

Some people give up a lot of their time to volunteering. As we discovered a few posts ago, time is a very valuable and non-renewable commodity, so I admire people who give up their free time to helping others. I’ve done very little volunteering in the last 17 years. When XUP Jr. was young my excuse was always that I couldn’t leave her home alone while I went out to do good deeds[2].  I don’t have that excuse anymore.

Some people choose professions that require them to put their lives on the line almost every day. Firefighters, for instance, are always in danger. So are soldiers. So are other people who work or volunteer in war zones or in third world or other countries with political unrest. There are even people who work here at home in areas where danger is a regular part of their day.

Then there are those  stories of people who sacrifice themselves at the spur of the moment, without hesitation, to save someone else’s – a stranger’s – life.  They dive into the ocean to rescue a drowning child. They run into a burning building because they hear someone calling for help. They plunge into traffic to push someone out of the way of a bus and end up getting killed by that same bus. These people amaze me.

As do the people who donate kidneys or bone marrow or bits of their liver or skin tissue or ova or who bear children for others who can’t.  And they’re donating while they’re still alive to family, friends and even strangers. How do they come to such a decision?

After I’m dead anybody can have whatever parts of me are still useful as far as I’m concerned – but a live donation? For my child, no question, I would donate whatever she needed. But for anyone else? Even a sibling or a parent? Man, I’d love to be able to say “absolutely” and I think, probably when it came to the crunch I’d do it. But, if I’m being completely honest, I’d have to say there is some doubt. It would depend on the circumstances, the risks, the benefits – I’d have to think about it. I hope I’d say yes.

What about you? What is the most selfless thing you’ve ever done? Or, what if someone you knew needed your kidney? Would you hesitate knowing the donation would affect the quality of your life and maybe even shorten your life, nevermind the risks inherent in such major surgery?


[1] She was about 6 and we were walking along, hand in hand, on the sidewalk when around the corner of a building comes running a big, ugly Rottweiler – teeth bared, growling and charging right at us. Without thought or intention, I stepped in front of my daughter and kicked the dog in the chops a split second before he pounced. At that same instant the owner came around the corner and yelled at the dog and then yelled at me for kicking his dog. XUP Jr. was screaming to beat the band and I finally came to understand what an adrenaline rush really feels like. But most of all, I was incredibly relieved that my first instinct was to protect my daughter. One never knows, right? Humans are programmed for self-preservation, right? How devastating would it have been if I’d just shouted “RUN! EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF!” and had taken off?

[2] Like Mrs. Jellyby of Dickens’ Bleak House. What an awesome novel that is – and I mean “awesome” in the full sense of the word.

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24 responses to “The Hero in You

  1. Yeah, I’d donate a kidney if someone needed it. And I’ve left instructions for the organ people to take anything they can use after I die and then my body is to be cremated. And hopefully my ashes will be spread on the North Carolina coast.

  2. I don’t know if you are familiar with the old “Seinfeld” sponge-worthy episode, but I used to measure people in my life as being “kidney-worthy” or not. There are a handful of people I would donate a kidney to but I doubt anyone would want one of mine. I’m sure all the beer makes them tired. My kidneys, I mean, not those people. I’ve been delivering Meals on Wheels once a week for almost 10 years but I’d hardly consider it to be altruistic. I do that so that I feel like a contributing member of society. Otherwise, I’d just be a big lumpy beer-guzzling taker up of space.

  3. Haha! I really love geewits’s comment, I’m crazy about Seinfeld but haven’t seen that episode. I think measuring people in your life this way is actually a fabulous idea (this is giving me the giggles for some odd reason) – I’m thinking right now about who is kidney-worthy and my partner and my sister popped in my head instantly as I started reading this. So yes, and I don’t even need to think about that one. Parents are more complicated, mainly because they’re older, so I guess you’d have to consider a lot of things – such as: would donating them a kidney provide them with a relatively good quality of life? If so, yes. It hurts a little thinking about this because my parents are on the other side of the world – and getting older. But they’re definitely kidney-worthy people. Other than them, forget it!

  4. The best thing I’ve ever done was probably “be nice” to a friend or family member, when they needed my help.

    My life hasn’t all that exciting. I haven’t had to throw myself in front of a bullet, or donate a kidney.

    So I can’t really say how I might act.

  5. i haven’t done anything altruistic. i used to do volunteer work, but since moving here 12 yrs ago, adn then having the jellybean, i too believe that i just don’t have the time to give up. hopefully that selfishness will soon end.

    i think i would do it, with geewits caviate. i even thought that i would love to be a serrogate, but figured i was just too old. i loved being pregnant, and knew i only wanted one child. but the thought of having one for someone who couldn’t was really a nice thought. then again, it’s easier to think these things than do them, isn’t it.

  6. Dr. Monkey – Can I have your kidney? I’m making a steak and kidney pie for some visiting Brits. Thank you.

    Geewits – I think the MOW thing is altruistic. Most acts of altruism also happen to make the altruist feel good, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it takes up your time and effort and causes you stress occasionally and even emotional upset sometimes. And beyond even just volunteering some time – MOW is a pretty serious commitment. It’s not like you can get up one morning and decide you don’t feel like bringing these people some food today. You have to go. Sure there are back-ups for when you really can’t make it, but that doesn’t happen too often. (I do remember the sponge-worthy episode. In fact one brand of contraceptive sponges actually ended up using that as an ad slogan after – it’s amazing how much Seinfeldese has worked its way into every day language. I should post about that some day!)

    Monica – How could you have missed that episode? But anyhow, isn’t it odd how you have to think about whether or not you’d donate an organ to save your own parent’s life? The very (and maybe only) people who would usually give up their own lives for you? So then of course the next question would be whether or not your parents would even let you make such a sacrifice? I’d certainly not be comfortable about my daughter giving up a kidney for me.

    Friar – Hmmm…what does “be nice” mean exactly? You didn’t smack them upside the head and tell them to stop snivelling? Or does it mean you gave them some money or helped them move or let them sleep on your floor for weeks and weeks?

    Smothermother – I can’t imagine giving up a baby you schlepped around for 9 months..because you’re pretty attached to it by then, aren’t you? I guess that’s what makes it a selfless act

  7. I guess I believe that everyone would be a hero in the right (or wrong) circumstances. I’d help out any friend or family member with a part of my body if it would save their life. I’d rather do that than be haunted by “what if I’d just said yes” for the rest of my life. Does that make it a selfish act?

    But surgery is easy when you think about it. It’s things like rescuing a child from a well that give me the occasional nightmare. I’m not sure I’d be able to do something like that. What if I was the only one who could fit down the hole?

  8. A few years back, I faced to possibility of donating a kidney to one of my sisters.

    We haven’t been close since I left home almost 40 years ago. She’s made a lot of unfortunate choices in her life and, unfortunately, in her kids’ lives. Many times, when life got rough, she bailed out and did her own thing, regardless of who it hurt. If I looked at things that way, she wouldn’t measure up to be “kidney worthy.”

    However, she’s my “little” sister and despite everything that’s happened in the past, if she needed my kidney and I was a match, I’d be there.

    Fortunately for both of us, it wasn’t needed. While she lost one kidney, the other recovered.

  9. I agree with Christine, in the moment I think anyone can be a hero. But let’s not forget there are little ways to be a hero too, such as donate blood or volunteer in the community. And while it might not be the same as diving in front of a bus for another, those little things can go a long way to improve the lives of others. I recently went ballroom dancing with the elderly residence of the Perley Rideau. It was a one hour expereicne I’ll never forget! Knowing that many of these people had not moved like that in years, and seeing the smiles on some of their faces as they left their walkers at the side of the room for a dance was so uplifting.
    I like to think I’d be a hero in the moment, but (selfishly maybe) I hope it doesn’t come to that. In the mean time I’ll stick to the little things.

  10. You know, I used to think I was pretty great person. I would describe myself as generous… But come to think about it, I don’t really do a lot that’s worthy of that title. I volunteer at the school (selfish: my kids) and for the neighbourhood association (selfish: my neighbourhood) and I donate money to organizations (selfish: organizations I feel are worthy of donating to). Most of my giving goes to my kids, and I think you’re right: having children is a very selfish act in many ways. So, I guess I’m not exactly as unselfish and generous as I thought I was, eh? Mind you, I’d donate a kidney to someone who needed it. Hmm.. Food for thought.

  11. @ Maven

    You know what would be selfless? You could comment on my blog once in a blue moon. ;-P

    @XUP

    It’s an interesting question. And I’m glad that you kicked the Rottweiler. Once, a few summers ago, we were visiting a friend’s cottage, and I was sitting on the dock with Rae. A huge dock spider climbed up from between the boards almost between my thighs. Did I leap for my child and bear her away from danger? I am ashamed to say, I did not. I leaped away from both my child and the giant horrible spider. Mom fail. But if it had been a Rottweiler, I would totally have kicked it.

  12. This reminds me of a conversation I had with friends once. I had this book called “the book of questions” and it had all sorts of ethical questions and such.

    One question was: You’re on the subway, a mad shooter comes in. If you hide, you’ll live. If you try to stop him, no one else will get hurt, but you will die. What do you do?

    I was surprised at the number of people who off the bat said: I’ll save everyone.

    Me? I’d hide. And I made the argument that most of them would also. Who knows what you’ll do when push comes to shove, but I’d think I’d look out for number one.

  13. There are so many kinds of heroism. I trained extensively as a lifeguard – result, I would dive into anything if I saw someone in trouble. Reflex. Not heroic, in my view, because I would expect to save the other person and survive myself. For someone who is at best an indifferent swimmer, the same act would be heroic. And both of them would maybe drown, but that’s a different story.
    I do a lot of volunteering because I am a person to whom much has been given and that is my way of giving back. For me this is ‘duty’ and not heroic at all.
    Jump in front of a bus to save my grandkid? I expect I would. To save a stranger? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think anyone really knows until the moment strikes.
    There’s a lot of heroism, I believe, in getting up day after day to do an uncongenial job to support your family. In just ‘getting on with it’ without complaint when you are sick or tired.
    Lately I think the concept of ‘heroic’ has been devalued somewhat. Are the Olympic competitors heros (and heroines)? Does Crosby’s goal make him a ‘hero’? Not for me. But the sportswriters sure toss the term around.

  14. Nothing too impressive for me. I did throw my body over the stroller when a crazed pair of boxers foaming at the mouth charged us. I would happily give a kidney to one of my kids, but beyond that? I just don’t know. I would not be a surrogate mother or donate eggs but not because of the risks – I just couldn’t tolerate handing over what i would consider to be “my” child to anyone. So far, I’ve mostly done the “easy” things – donate money to charities, registered as an organ donor should I get killed, do some pro bono work.

  15. I’m a big fan of volunteering and donating and helping out but I have a less altriustic attitude when it comes to sharing body parts.
    I would donate a kidney to my husband, my parents and my brother. Everyone else-I’m afraid not. It may sound “selfish” but I KNOW my husband and immediate family would do the same for me, whereas other people, I’m not so sure.

  16. I should mention, however, that I have no problem donating blood and have a donor card with Canadian Blood Services. Blood is one thing, but I hesitate more when it comes to major organs. 🙂

  17. I went to a medical school lecture on the renal system a few years ago and they said that your life with only one kidney is often shorter than with two, so consider than before donating. In light of that, I’m pretty sure that my kidney would only go to the people most deserving of it and by most deserving, I mean the people who will pay me the largest sum of money. After that, they talked about how terrible high fructose corn syrup is for your kidneys – AWFUL, AWFUL, AWFUL. Then they served cake.

  18. Christine – I never thought about the haunting part. That would be tough to live with. What if the person you gave your kidney to, didn’t treat it well. Like say they totally abused their body with drugs or alcohol or just general neglect. Wouldn’t that tick you off?

    Mike – I think ethically the decision would have to be you’d save someone’s life no matter who or what they are if it means just a minor issue in your own life to do so.

    Laura – Absolutely! As I mentioned you don’t have to take a bullet for someone to be a hero. Volunteering your time is huge – not a small thing at all, I think.

    Maven – Bah! You’re a great person. It sounds like you do more than your bit – with 3 kids and a household to look after, working part time, volunteering and just BEING The Maven.

    Alison – I think if The Maven comments on your blog once a year you should consider yourself blessed. Don’t be greedy over The Maven’s favours. Shame on you for leaving your daughter to be murdered by that critter while you ran for safety. Tsk. Tsk.

    Jazz – That book sounds like it would have a lot of great ideas for blog posts!! I don’t think anyone honestly knows what they’d do in an emergency situation like that. You can say what you hope you’d do, but people surprise themselves when it comes down to it – sometimes it’s a good surprise, sometimes not.

    Mary – You’re quite right about the overuse of the word “hero”. Sports people are not heroes to me either. Building them up as some sort of super humans results in stuff like the insane outrage over Tiger Woods’ personal life. Big surprise – he’s a human being with all sorts of faults like everyone else. Just because he’s pretty good at playing golf doesn’t make him a god.

    SAW – Ya, I’m in your camp. But who knows? We may be called upon one day to do something really amazing and we’ll be all rested up for it!!

    Pauline – I read about a mental illness where people go around donating all the body parts they possibly can to strangers. And really, though it sounds incredible to want to donate a kidney to a total stranger, it’s also a bit odd, isn’t it?

    Linsey – I’ll ask you the same thing I asked someone earlier then. Say you donated a kidney to your sister, would you feel you have proprietal rights over her body forever because it’s housing one of your organs? Like if she went mad and became a high fructose corn syrup addict (cake fiend, et al) would you be really pissed off?

  19. Well, maybe. At that point there wouldn’t be much I could do. It’s not like I could repossess it. But maybe I could…maybe I could.

  20. Well, I served 14 years with the Armed Forces, including two tours in theatre… but I don’t think I can say with a straight face that I did it out of sheer altruism. Though I’m intensely patriotic and wanted to have the courage of my convictions to stand on the pointy end of the stick, I was perfectly conscious of the excellent educational opportunities. Retiring with a pension was also pretty high up on my “want” list, as well… so it wasn’t unmixed motivations, there.

    As for organs… I don’t know. The question you asked Linsey was perfect… I’d be mad as heck that she was squandering the chance I gave her (my hypothetical sister.) Fail.

  21. when we thought my dad needed one i automatically said of course i’ll donate. my husband, while he understood where i was coming from, was concerned about me and my health as a wife/mother. easier said than done i guess. turns out it wasn’t his kidneys though, so we never had to go there.
    i do keep meaning to give blood, and i never make time for it, so i pretty much suck.

  22. One time I was taking a city bus and an old lady got on just after me. There was only one seat so I looked at the seat and at her hobbling down the aisle behind me.

    Then I sat down. I paid for a seat darnit.

    But when I got off she got to sit down I think so it was pretty heroic of me really.

  23. I have donated blood and plasma. I yanked a young kid out of the line of a car and then called him a dumbass. I am not sure I did it to save his life, or I did not want to see the aftermath or I wanted to call him a dumbass or all the three.

    I would donate bone marrow to a family member or to a friend if needed. Kidney….I’d have to really think about it.