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My Dad called the other day.  He told me he’d been talking to my Cousin Donny, and that Donny had told him a pretty surprising story.

Well, when my Dad has a “surprising” story, it’s usually well worth the price of admission, so I paused the TiVo and settled in to listen.

My cousin Donny lives in Tennessee.  He’s related to me in an uncle-ish sort of way.  Donny had two sons.  One of them died not so long ago, and that’s how the story started.  Donny’s younger son had cystic fibrosis.  He lived into his 30s, which is a very long time for a person to live with that disease. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that expresses itself primarily through the continuous buildup of mucus in the lungs.  Those with cystic fibrosis get frequent respiratory infections, and often are treated with rigorous massages to break up the mucous.

Much of his son’s long life span can be attributed to the love and care that Donny gave him. After the breakup of Donny’s marriage, Donny continued to take care of the boys. He would massage his son several times a day, loosening the sticky white phlegm that threatened to choke the air from his son’s lungs.

After years and years of bacterial infections, wheezing, coughing and treatment, the lungs of Donny’s son were shot.  He was put on a waiting list for a lung transplant, and when a motorcycle rider became a donor, he was admitted for a double lung transplant.

The operation wasn’t going to be an easy one in the first place.  However, it went much longer than expected, and though Donny’s son survived the operation, he died the next day.  A double lung transplant is risky, and for a 30-year-old cystic fibrosis patient, the chances were even slimmer.  Donny knew the chances, and had known this moment might come for many years.

Well, that was three years ago, and as he told my Dad, there still isn’t a day that goes by where he doesn’t think about his son, one way or another.

Donny’s other son, meanwhile, works for the TBI, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which is the investigative arm of the state attorney’s office.  Much of what he is working on he can’t discuss openly, because it’s related to grand jury investigations or large probes of criminal wrong doing.  But one of the things he was working on recently was medical insurance fraud.  He was interviewing someone, I believe from the hospital where his brother had died, and the person he was interviewing said to him, as an aside, “Well of course, there have been some pretty major medical blunders at that hospital covered up. Like that lung transplant that went wrong.”

Donny’s son said, “What do you mean?” and the fellow said, “Well, there was this guy who came in for a lung transplant, and the doctors working on him, they screwed it up, they tried to put the lungs in backwards, and the patient died the next day.”

And Donny’s son says, “Wait here a minute,” and goes down the hall to his boss and says “You might have to take me off this case. I think I’m personally involved in it, because my brother might have been a victim of this hospital.”  And the boss takes him off the case, and says, you better find out if this was your brother and see what you can find quick, because that was several years ago and there’s a statute of limitations on this crime.

So Donny’s son heads home and tells Donny what he learned, and they go to look up the medical records.  And they start to learn some things.

They know that there were two doctors involved, and first thing they figure out is the man they thought was the main doctor, he was the transplant surgeon.  What that means is, there was one doctor, an older doctor, who was responsible for removing the lungs from the donor, and there was another doctor, a younger fellow, who was going to place the lungs into Donny’s son.  And the older doctor, the transplant surgeon, he had come out to talk to Donny after the operation.  But the younger doctor, the main doctor, he never did speak to Donny.  Donny had tried to speak to the doctor after the operation, to thank him for trying his best, but the younger doc never would meet Donny.  But all along, Donny had thought the older doctor was the one who was responsible for the surgery.

The younger doctor had moved to St. Louis a year or two after the operation, and at that time he did write to Donny (or call him, I’m not sure which), and ask if Donny wanted a copy of Donny’s son’s medical records.  Donny said no, he didn’t need that sort of a reminder around the house and he probably wouldn’t understand them all anyway, and asked the doctor to keep them.

So you see, now Donny was wishing he had asked for the medical records.  So he tries to look up the doctor in St. Louis.  But there’s a problem.  Donny reaches the doctor’s wife, and finds out the doctor has died.  Donny explains his problem, and says he would really appreciate it if she could look thought the husband’s files for those medical records, because there’s a statute of limitations on this crime in Tennessee, and it’s about to expire, and they need to find enough evidence to move forward on this.

Well, the wife says she’ll look, and she calls back maybe two days later and says she tried really hard, she looked through all the files, but she can’t find one for Donny’s son.  And Donny says that this is really important, and could she maybe have one more look around, just to be sure.  And she calls two hours later and says she found it and she’s sending it right away.

When Donny gets the file, he opens it up and it’s all there, plain as can be.  It describes what happened, what went wrong, which is this:

The older doctor who removed the lungs from the donor, he mislabeled them.  He labeled the right one as the left one. And when he gave that lung to the younger doctor to put in, it wouldn’t fit.  You see, your right lung is bigger than your left lung, because your heart extends more into the left side of your body.  So the younger doctor, faced with a left lung that was too big for the left lung cavity, did what he could to make it fit.  One person’s lungs are going to be different from another’s, so he’d have to do this even with the proper side lung, and he doesn’t notice somehow that this lung is backwards or upside down or however you want to describe it.  Now I don’t know if that means he cut it or squished it or tied it off or what.  But he made it fit, and once that was done, he asked for the right lung.

Of course, when he tried to put the right lung in, he knew what had happened, and now they had a problem.  They needed to switch the left and right lungs.  But to do so, they’d need to put Donny’s son on a heart and lung machine for an extended period.  If you’re just changing one lung at a time, apparently, you can keep the other lung going, and this is less traumatic for the patient.

But they’d have to detach both lungs, and so he was put on this machine for quite a while, while they swapped the two lungs.  Meanwhile, this machine is circulating blood through the body and it’s hard on the corpuscles, and there’s clotting and buildup of who knows what.  I’m not a doctor, and this is third hand, but basically, between the modifications to these new lungs, the length of the surgery, him being on the machine, and his health problems, he didn’t survive.

For Donny, it’s a horrible, horrible discovery.  He’s a courageous man, he’d been preparing himself for the inevitable loss of his son for years, and when the end came, it was almost as expected—medical complications, and the will of God.  But Danny, now, is faced with another scenario, one he’d never considered.  “Instead of it being the Will of God,” he says, “It’s the hand of man.”  And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre and tragic, there’s one more twist.

The young doctor, it wasn’t his mistake that killed Danny.  He was involved, and could perhaps have prevented it, but he didn’t mislabel the lungs.  That was the older doctor, the one who came and told Danny that there was nothing they could have done, that complications arose, that made the mistake.

The young doctor, he left the hospital and Tennessee.  He offered the medical records to Danny, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything about what was in them.  He never directly told Danny about this, and he carried this secret around with him.

And how did he die?

He’s in his backyard with his family, in Saint Louis.  They’re barbecuing.  He and his wife get into a heated argument in front of their kids.  The wife says to the husband, “Well, if that’s the way you’re going to be, you might as well kill yourself.”

And the doctor says, “OK fine, I will!”  And he grabs the knife from beside the barbecue and, in front of his wife and children, slits his own throat.

Overheard

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?

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