I got the call at 3:10 a.m. from the Durham County Police. I knew as soon as the phone rang at that hour that it was bad news. They were at Duke Hospital. They told me that my 32 year-old son, Ian Montgomery Graham, had been in a motorcycle accident and they had been trying to find his family for hours.
They put the attending physician at the ICU on the phone. She was kind and professional. She said that his neck was broken and that he had not regained consciousness. I asked her how bad that was and she replied that it was very bad. I said that it sounded like I should come as soon as I could, and she said yes.
I don’t remember exactly how I knew he was essentially gone already. I knew he was on a respirator. She told me his brain stem was terribly damaged. I didn’t call anyone until 7:00 a.m. I have no idea what I did between the phone call you never want and 7:00.
I left the next morning with Ian’s best friend and her husband. I called a few people, including my friend who is a physician at Duke. He was waiting for us when we arrived at the hospital. When we arrived at the hospital we discovered that at the time of the accident an ICU nurse, on her way home from work, was the first on the scene and performed an emergency tracheotomy. The quickly arriving paramedics “bagged him” (hand pumped air) so his body would get oxygen. At the hospital, he was on a respirator.
He was on the respirator for two reasons: one, so that my daughter Lydia, his friends, and I could get there to say good-bye; and two, to keep his body alive – because he was an organ donor.
Ian was a free spirit. He was smart, funny and loving. Two weeks before his accident, I dislocated my hip for the fifth time, had surgery, and he came to help me out. He made me laugh, cooked, ran errands, and was good company. I can still see him standing at the kitchen counter in his favorite Aloha shirt, drumming on the counter. He always had a song in his head and drummed along to whatever it was. He was an excellent drummer, photographer and writer. He was terribly disorganized, but I was glad to see during his last visit that he was getting a grip on that by making lists. I keep one in my bag. The list starts with “make list.”
Ian’s accident was on a Wednesday evening, and by Thursday morning, the ICU waiting room was filling with his friends. Close friends from North Carolina were waiting for me. They had known him since he was a toddler. Ian was never alone from Thursday morning until Sunday afternoon. It was like a vigil. A stranger with a family member in ICU made a wonderful colorful drawing entitled “Ian’s Army.” Ian’s army was perfect as he treated everyone he met with respect.
The four days in the hospital were numbing. I remember telling a friend that I felt like I was outside my body watching a play I did not want to be in. And except for the fact he was warm and his heart was beating, he was gone. One day I just laid across him and sobbed. I told him I loved him from the moment I knew I was pregnant. I told him how much I loved him and always would. I told him that I loved his “Mom” tattoo. I told him that life for him would go on in a different way. He would be saving the lives of others. I told him that his friends were in and out and talking to him also. He was loved by so many.
Because Ian had also sustained other injuries when he was thrown from the motorcycle, not all of his organs were viable for transplant. His liver and one kidney went to men in their 60’s, both grandfathers whose lives depended on a transplant. His corneas went to other recipients. One of his close friends and I laugh about the cornea transplants for the following reason: He viewed life through his own lens. We wonder if the cornea recipients are saying “Wow, I never saw it like THAT before?”
The medical staff at Duke Hospital were wonderful to us. I can’t say enough about their caring and professionalism. This, and we are obnoxious Carolina basketball fans! One of the nurses asked if I wanted a picture of Ian’s “Mom” tattoo. I hadn’t even thought of that. He surprised me, really surprised me, one Thanksgiving when he arrived and said “Look what I got!” I was stuck between love and horror at that moment! He explained it to me: The wings were that I would be forever a free spirit, the halo was because I was an angel to him, and the boxing gloves were from our Tae Kwon Do days together. At the bottom of the tattoo were the words “Mother,” “Mentor,” and “Grace.” (Grace was a college nickname because I am clumsy.)
On Sunday, Lydia and I went with Ian to the surgical floor. We each sat on one side of the bed, holding his hands. The doctors removed the respirator, and his heart gave out quickly. He had not moved at all for four days, but, after they removed the respirator, he squeezed my hand. I still wonder if he was aware during those four days of what was going on. I don’t think so, but as he was dying, he knew I was there with him. He had to, but, again, this is just speculation. I hope he knew he was not alone and that his sister and I were part of the journey, certainly a journey we didn’t want.
My daughter and I are also organ donors, although I’m sure I’m too old for my organs to be used. The three of us never considered “not” being organ donors. Why would you? The medical expertise is there so why not allow someone else to live? Let a man enjoy his grandchildren and let them enjoy him. It’s a gift of life. As his life journey ended, others were able to begin the journey to recovery.
I have never once regretted that he chose to be an organ donor. I know that he would have wanted to have given more if he could have.