They say it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it. They say attitude is everything. They say that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. They say experience is the best teacher. Well, sometimes I wish “they” would shut up.
Trenton always considered himself special for his transplant, probably because Valerie and I felt the same way, choosing to show him off rather than hide him. We had received a gift of life and felt the need and opportunity to help others by promoting organ donation. Trent and Valerie had been on television, radio and in print.
(Trent sees himself in a monitor in the first of these two interviews)
He threw out the first pitch with Carl Lewis at a Texas Rangers baseball game. He also presented a plaque to Tom Landry at halftime of a Dallas Mavericks basketball game.
A newspaper article on Trenton appeared in the Dallas Morning News when Trent was in elementary school. Two weeks later, our Indian Guides tribe attended a Rangers baseball game where the boys were allowed on the field. The kids lined up on each side of the dugout to welcome the players down the “rally alley” before the game began. Kenny Rogers, a pitcher, walked onto the field, straight to Trenton and spoke with him. Trent made little of the encounter at the time, but a few innings into the game, he leaned over to me and said, “Hey, Dad, do you know why that guy talked to me? He probably remembered me from the newspaper article.”
Trent managed to get himself in trouble in elementary school, even though he was in a wheelchair with a cast following knee surgery. The girls in his class were nice enough to help Trent and even push his wheelchair, but Trent went too far when he began giving them orders. In his mind, he was the boss and the girls were privileged to be his subordinates.
Trenton’s adolescent years brought the typical parenting challenges, but few associated with his medical history. Valerie and I had heard stories that occasionally a transplant kid will stop taking immunosuppressants (anti-rejection drugs) in the teen years and won’t tell anyone, basically committing suicide. The kid decides it’s not fair, that his or her life can’t be like non-transplant kids. They feel burdened by the meds routine, the doctor visits, the uncomfortable side effects. They give up. While Trent had felt plenty of frustration, it had never become desperation.
Cancer still a part of our recent past, Trenton lived at home his first year of college to be near Dr. Mom, so he was eager for independence as a sophomore. Those plans were delayed when Trent began to feel ill the day he moved in to his apartment. By midnight he was in ER at Children’s, and the next morning he was quarantined in ICU, diagnosed with a staph infection, the source of which was unknown. For two days, we were required to scrub in and wear masks and gowns before entering his room while doctors searched for the source.
On the third day, a new type of test was run. Results available a few hours later, the cardiologist walked in Trent’s room and reported, “I’ve been doing heart caths eleven years and it’s never happened, but that’s what it was.” Heart catheterizations involve going in through a major artery. Trent had a routine heart cath only a month earlier, and someone hadn’t followed procedure, causing an infection on Trent’s heart. Trenton’s response: “Hey, nobody’s perfect.”
Trenton seems to think Valerie worries about him too much, and every so often something happens to remind Val to keep worrying. This time, it was in the spring of 2014, seven months after Trent’s staph infection when we learned his body was rejecting his transplanted heart. While Val’s worry kicked into a silent high gear, Trenton’s “whatever” cruised at a steady pace as he informed the cardiologist that the transplant needed to be in June or July, because he was busy.
I wondered how Trenton could have such an attitude, and after the transplant I may have found my answer. A friend loaned me a book, “David and Goliath” in which author Malcolm Gladwell shares a variety of challenges and setbacks which the characters used as assets in attaining success (for instance, a disproportionately high percentage of CEO’s have dyslexia). The story that caught my attention was of Britain during the second world war. The British government, fearful an attack by Germany would not only be physically devastating, but psychologically, built multiple psychiatric hospitals outside the London city limits to handle the anticipated casualties.
Once the bombings occurred, buildings were leveled, thousands were killed and thousands more injured, yet the psychiatric hospitals were empty. It turned out that, after the first bombing, survivors realized they could in fact survive a bombing. Furthermore, as the bombings continued, as devastating as they were, they reinforced the survivors’ beliefs. Multiple times they would experience one of two types of misses. A “near miss” was close enough to feel, and perhaps even get injured, but they survived. A “remote miss” may have been only a few blocks away, close enough to hear, maybe even seeing the bombs falling from the sky, but the person knew he or she would be unharmed. For some people, the near misses became almost like a show to watch.
That was Trent. He had felt near misses – transplant number one, cancer, staph infection – and had always survived. And he witnessed a multitude of remote misses – knee surgery, monthly checkups and annual heart catheterizations. The combination of these misses over his lifetime might have reinforced to Trenton that transplant number two, while something that may seem too overwhelming for most people to face, was just another “bombing” like many before. The cardiologist sounds the alarm; the family takes cover; their world shakes; and once it’s over Trent just goes back to school.
This is not to say Trent is oblivious to the risks. One morning, a few days prior to being listed for his second transplant, Trent awakened from a multi-day heavy sedation and joined a discussion of whether the hospital would list him. The cardiologist did not hold back, sharing his own questions of why and why not listing, the possible outcomes if Trent were not approved, and how long Trenton might survive if not listed. Trent was unusually quiet later that afternoon, lying still, mostly looking distantly up at the ceiling while holding Valerie’s hand. I noticed his eyes watering but he never cried.
A lesson from this, like it or not, is that experience helps. I wish Still Thankful could provide all the secrets to surviving traumatic situations, but like “they” say, sometimes “you just have to be there.” I share what I can so you can learn from our experiences and be better prepared to care for yourself or others facing a trauma. However, at some point, experience will be your best teacher.
Notice I didn’t include our cancer adventure; it will be the next blog with a different lesson. I guess you could say this one was from the heart, and the next one is from the gut (the cancer was in Trenton’s abdomen…get it?).
For difficult experiences, I’m NOT thankful, but for the wisdom and ability to help others because of those experiences…of course I’m still thankful.
P.S. – To explain the pictures at the top, three of the many friends who have positively impacted Trenton’s attitude:
1. The York family would have Trenton out to their ranch in Stephenville (where he slept with/on/under their Labradors).
2. Deana Dynis, Trent’s 3rd grade teacher, and his Executive Director when he graduated high school. She was there for him in between those years and ever since.
3. Did you know Trenton is a second-degree black belt? Being trained by Master Cha in Coppell, Texas was a major factor in building Trenton’s confidence, respect and courtesy; and Cha trusted Trent, as weapons expert, to train others.