"Sixteen years ago, after two months of mysteriously deteriorating mobility and balance, I finally had an MRI, which showed a large mass on my spinal cord. In surgery the next morning, it was revealed to be a meningioma, a type of benign tumor - a big one, wrapped three-quarters of the way around my spinal cord and invading the cord's hard outer covering, or dura. The last thing the surgeon did, (before he put in the drain tube and pulled the muscle back in place, stitching it together, and then sewing the subcutaneous tissue together and finally closing the whole thing by stapling the skin in a line down my spine), was to patch the hole in my spinal cord with a piece of human fascia 3 or 4 cm long and 1 cm wide.
It's a little dramatic to say that patch of transplanted tissue is why I can walk today. But it's part of the story.
I didn't know until a few months ago that I was the recipient of human tissue from a deceased donor. Until then I found discussions about the ethics and implications of organ and tissue donation fascinating to argue, to examine from various angles. Then one day, as I was about to give blood at the bloodmobile, the nurse asked a question I hadn't heard before: "Have you received a dura mater transplant?" It stopped me. I told her about my surgery. She looked it up in her Standard Operating Procedures, and believing I had received dura mater, marked my records as a deferral. Curiosity finally led me back to the hospital in November of 2004, where I requested a copy of my surgical record and found that I had not received dura mater (because there's a chance it might carry Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, it's no longer transplanted) but I did receive human tissue: fascia lata, from the thigh. I burst into tears. It's one thing to walk around picturing your spinal cord patched like a bicycle tire tube. It's another thing to realize that parts of another human being are inside your body, helping to keep you upright and walking.
Tissue transplants aren't nearly as tricky as organ transplants. Fascia lata, in fact, can be recovered from nearly any deceased donor. Some people are less willing to allow recovery of their loved one's eyes or tissues than their internal organs, I was told by staff at CTS in Portland, because it's more discomforting. They also said that, like me, many tissue recipients don't even know they are tissue recipients. Synthetics were available 16 years ago, my surgeon has since explained, but they didn't work as well for patches as large as mine. He could have left the hole uncovered, but leaking spinal fluid would likely have caused me other problems.
I have almost nothing in common with kidney or heart or lung recipients. A transplant didn't save my life. I don't have to take any medications. I do not worry about needing another transplant someday. There are really only two things we have in common. I am healthy and mobile today in part because, years ago, at a hospital somewhere, someone asked a very difficult question of someone whose loved one had just died. And someone said yes.
SIDEBAR: My surgery was in May 1989, when I was 34. By the time I was diagnosed, I was unable to walk without assistance, and of course I was no better off immediately after the surgery. When I asked my neurologist what I needed to do to get my mobility back, he looked at me and said, "Walk. Just walk." I did. I ended up writing two hiking guidebooks, 120 Hikes on the Oregon Coast and Best Hikes with Children in Western and Central Oregon."