It was Thursday. No, Friday. It was the middle of the night. The phone rang, loudly, waking me from a deep sleep. A woman’s voice, urgent, asked if Paul was home.
“He’s sleeping,” I said, heart pounding. It was a call we knew would come someday, one day, this day. She was the liver transplant coordinator from Massachusetts General Hospital.
“We have a liver for Paul,” she said, “Can you be here in three hours?”
I tried to grasp this. Paul was awake now. Three hours from our home in Tisbury to MGH in Boston in the middle of the night? We knew it was probably not possible. “We’ll make some calls,” I said. Thus began an incredible voyage.
Paul has been on the transplant list for a year and a half. His liver was destroyed by hepatitis C and had developed cancer. The amazing teams at MGH were treating him and keeping him in the running for a life-saving new liver. Our family and closest friends knew this, but it was not the sort of thing you chatted about in Cronig’s, so most people in the community were unaware.
When you are on a liver transplant list, you earn points as time goes on. Paul had earned enough points to now be at the top of the list. We were officially “waiting,” while living one day at a time, sticking to our normal routines of work and family and grateful for each day. Some days we cried.
That night, we followed Plan A: a list of Angel Flight pilots who had volunteered to be called upon in these circumstances. For one reason or another, none of the six were available that night. We had less than two and a quarter hours left to find a way to Boston. Plan B: the Patriot boat and a cab ride. The boat’s captain said he could come over, and the whole excursion would take a little over an hour. There was only one cab on duty but they could meet us when they returned from Hyannis. This would take longer than the three-hour limit, but it might be our only option. We said we’d call them back. Then we made other calls, to the Coast Guard, state police, our local hospital. Everyone had suggestions, but nobody had a solution.
I believe that things happen if they are supposed to. I believe we have to keep trying. The phone rang. It was MGH. How were we doing? A full hour had gone by.
“We will let you know soon,” I said.
Of course we knew that if it was not possible to make the trip in three hours, it was absolutely impossible to make it in two. We also knew that our only chance was to find someone already on the Island who could take us over to the mainland. One more call. Our friend Jay Wilbur is also the Vineyard Haven harbor master. We had asked him once if he thought he’d be able to help us out if we were desperate. He said he thought he could. I called, woke him, explained the situation, and he said he’d meet us at the dock in 15 minutes. We called MGH. “We’re on our way.”
As we drove up to the dock, the state police unexpectedly called my cell phone and said they would escort us. They arranged for an ambulance and a police car to take us up to Boston. I said thank you. I think that’s what I said. This journey was now completely out of our hands.
The boat ride across the Sound was beautiful, the lights of our harbor twinkling and disappearing, rain falling softly. Our team on the other side drove very fast, and we arrived at MGH by our designated hour. The liver transplant team could not believe it. We could not believe it. Time and place — both surreal. Three hours earlier we got the call. Now we were in the liver transplant unit at MGH. How did that happen?
We had no idea that a Boston television news station was filming our 3 a.m. arrival at MGH that night, or that our story would be broadcast on the news and in the papers. We had no control over any of that. We never intended for our personal medical adventures (as Maynard used to call them) to be made public. And that is when I realized with absolute certainty that this story is bigger than we are.
This amazing middle of the night heroic effort is a tale of hope and kindness and of a power much greater than any of us. This is a story reminding us of the desperate need for organ donors, and the struggle of those waiting for organs like livers and kidneys and hearts.
We live in one of the best communities in the world. On the Vineyard we care about one another, we rejoice together in happy times and grieve together in sad times. We help each other when we can. Every person you see shopping in Cronig’s is going through something, of that you can be sure.
My husband Paul is so brave, and his story continues. On that amazing night, in the end, he did not receive a new liver. Even though a liver may initially be a match, the transplant team can decide up to the last minute that it will not work, for many different reasons. We are glad the surgeons are careful and selective. We want Paul to get the best liver possible.
Since that time, we have been called again, and sent home again. We continue to wait and to hope and to be grateful for so many things and so many people. And always keeping in mind the life-saving sacrifices of organ donors and their families.
A story bigger than we are? You bet.
MJ Bruder-Munafo is the artistic and executive director of the Vineyard Playhouse.