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The Tainted Kidney


I don’t know what I expected from his answer. Ultimately, the only answer to the question of “why” is, simply, “because.” Cullen did what he felt he needed to, or wanted to, or could; at some point, they had become the same thing. In such a tyranny, bad and good don’t figure. It’s a simple answer, but it’s the only one that makes sense.

Cullen fixes me with a look, then takes his glance away, as if to study my response in private. “I know a lot of people find it surprising that someone like me would want to do this, donate. But for me, it’s totally consistent. For me, as a nurse, it’s what I would do, what I would have always done. It’s who I am. But if you need to wonder why I should, or why someone like me would, well, it really depends on how you think of people. And what you think people are capable of.”

As it happens, it was a Tuesday when the waiting ended. They came for Cullen in the night, guards with keys and handcuffs. He was going to the prison’s medical center at St. Francis hospital. If they knew why, they wouldn’t say. They gave him the paper gown again, drew his blood, cuffed him to the bed. The television in the corner was always on, local news, Oprah. A day passed, and he thought, Here we go again. He had only fourteen more days before his donor tests expired, but this wasn’t the donation. It was something else.

The guards came again in the morning. They were taking him downstairs; they didn’t say why. He was instructed to respond only to direct questions. He was told that Charles Cullen was not his name. His name was now Jonny Quest. The doctor called him Mr. Quest. It was a security measure, but also someone’s idea of a joke. Cullen thought it was funny. “It could have been worse,” he said later. “Saddam Hussein or something.”

They gave him something to relax him, Valium, he thinks; they wouldn’t say. It made him woozy. They gave him forms to sign. He held the pen, unsure of which name to use. “Use the one you’re supposed to,” the doctor said. He’d watched the cartoons as a kid, he remembered the handsome blond boy and his adventures, a helpful boy with skills, full of potential. He signed the paper “Jonny Quest.” It wasn’t legally binding, of course, so they gave him another form that he was to sign “Charles Cullen, a.k.a. Jonny Quest.” The nurse looked away when he did this. It was supposed to be a secret. Then they gave him another shot, and now he was feeling kinda gone.

An hour later, Jonny Quest’s kidney was tucked into a cooler and readied for its journey. It would have been crazy to risk traffic, so it likely flew via a Life Star helicopter, northeast from Trenton, keeping Manhattan on its left, banking up Long Island. That day the traffic far below was heavy with Hamptons weekenders, a line of lights leading past the massive Stony Brook medical complex, lit on the dark hillside like Bilbao under construction.

I parked in the C lot. On weekend nights, hospitals are usually busy only after the bars close and usually only in the emergency room. At 8 p.m., the main lobby was as quiet as a dead department store. A guard read yesterday’s newspaper again; the gift shop was just Mylar balloons in darkness. Surgery is on the fourth floor, with the burn unit and radiology. The kidney took the back elevator; I took the front.

In the surgical waiting room, the TV is always on, approximating normality for the families camped there, the children and their mothers holding each other, the men clutching Dunkin’ Donuts cups. This TV played the movie Freaky Friday, two people switching bodies and identities and, it being Hollywood and Disney at that, coming closer together as a result. But that was just a movie. For transplants, parts are parts. You take what you can get to survive.

And so, while Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan had their first mother-daughter argument about whose life was more difficult, Ernie Peckham lay face up on a table, anesthetized and encircled by masked strangers in disposable blue clothes. Some traced a curved incision through the fat of his abdomen, others parted the draped muscles of his belly wall with cool steel clamps. Johnny Quest’s kidney was about the size of a surgeon’s hand, a quivering bean shape mottled in yellowish fat that nested neatly into the half-shell of Peckham’s pelvis. A stump of renal artery, pruned only hours before from its owner’s aortal stalk, was patched into Ernie’s blood supply with 5-0 suture wire; vein was stitched to vein. And later, as Jamie Lee and Lindsay, back in their own bodies again, smiled knowingly at each other across a climactic concert scene, a surgical clamp was removed from an external iliac artery, and Jonny Quest’s kidney swelled pink with oxygenated blood, alive again—Ernie Peckham’s kidney now.


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