Monday, January 14, 2013

Goodbye, My Kidney Cousin

My dear friend Karen Dumas was the first to let me know. She and I had just shared breakfast that Friday morning, lamenting the post-New Year winter doldrums of January and the difficulty of getting your emotions jump-started and your life's goals in proper focus. So she must have known how I'd respond to the news.

She sent a text message that afternoon. Four words were all that was needed.
Gift of Life Organization

"Hugh Grannum has passed."

They hit me like four sledgehammer blows to the chest.

Hugh Parker Grannum, you see, besides being an award-winning, legendary, trailblazing photojournalist at the Detroit Free Press for more than 37 years prior to his retirement in 2007, felt to me like my kindred spirit because we shared an intimate connection:

We both contracted kidney failure at about the same time, and were on waiting lists for a transplant simultaneously, albeit in different states.

Hugh, 72, was at the Free Press long before I started writing for the rival Detroit News, and he remained there long after I left. We weren't exactly what you'd call bosom buddies during those years, but we knew of each other and were cordial whenever our paths would cross. (Bitter competition between the two daily papers in those days often hampered close friendships.)

But oh, how I admired his work! Hugh's photos consistently captured the essence of humanity, grace and quiet strength. As noted in his obituary, which you can read here, he was extremely mindful to shoot his subjects with dignity, especially African Americans, knowing it may be the only time in their lives they were photographed by a professional. I have worked with a number of very fine photographers over my career, but I always wished Hugh could have embellished one of my stories with his singular magic.

Hugh Grannum just radiated cool. The late, fabled Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who generally despised anybody who even appeared to have a media connection, maintained an open-door policy with Hugh. Nattily dressed, thoroughly professional, devoted to his art, he was every inch a role model, and after his kidneys began heading south our mutual admiration deepened.

Because of the close timing of our end-stage renal diagnoses and the fact we were both creative black men who worked for Detroit newspapers, our illnesses became closely intertwined. We often were mentioned in the same sentence; the great Freep columnist Rochelle Riley wrote about our mutual transplant needs. I recall one "friendraiser" benefit in Detroit that was held on behalf of us both. Mutual friends would keep me aware of his condition, and I'm certain they did the same with Hugh.

He received his transplant first, in 2010. I sent him a congratulatory card and effusive online best wishes. When I got my Cheyenne in November 2011, I received the same in return. We began speaking on the phone semi-regularly, just checking in and offering encouragement. Then last winter, we finally coordinated my travel plans and his hectic post-retirement schedule in order to meet for dinner.

Hugh, his delightful wife Carolyn and I met at Slows, Detroit's hottest barbeque joint, on a snowy, windy night. He was wearing a jaunty winter cap (oh, he could wear some hats) and his stylish little round glasses. We talked and laughed for hours, comparing transplant waiting list stories, hospital tales, surgery sagas and medication inventories. It was a magical, cosmic kind of evening. It's not because he's gone now that I'm saying this, but it was a night I will never forget.

There was a lot more wrong with Hugh than kidney miseries. He was afflicted with leukemia and, like me, still waged a constant battle against hypertension. Yet he seemed so upbeat, so happy, so...healthy that night, so positive in looking forward to his future with Carolyn and his lovely daughter, Blake.

A lot of people say, "I can't believe he's gone," when someone close to them dies, but in this case I mean it. In a very real sense, losing Hugh is like losing a part of my body, a slice of my history. Admittedly, it's a stunning, slap-in-the-face reminder of my own fragility and mortality. Hugh was literally my brother under the skin, and we both had the scars to prove it.

I can't imagine ever forgetting you, my friend. Hugh Grannum and I will be forever joined at the renal artery. Godspeed to you, man, and deepest sympathies to your family and your many, many friends who will remember you long and fondly.

Again, for more about Hugh, here is the obituary from his newspaper home, the Detroit Free Press.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year, New Life

It's been all the talk around where I live. Or maybe because people know about my medical situation, they've been racing up to tell me about it.

Shortly before Christmas, a man strolled into a suburban Chicago hospital and announced that he wanted to donate one of his kidneys. Not to anyone in particular, he explained; he just felt compelled to give a special Christmas "gift of life" to somebody.

After running the customary battery of tests (physical, not psychological), it was determined that his kidneys were a match for a 60-year-old wife, mother and grandmother from Burbank, Ill., who had been on dialysis for six years while waiting for a transplant donor.

Six years.

Six years of energy- and body-sapping dialysis, every week after exhausting week. Six years of waiting for a matching organ, hoping for the phone to ring with "the call," praying for deliverance. A six-year sentence, six years of a life not being fully lived.

What an indescribably amazing present.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you run out and do the same (Lord knows I can't), but you may be surprised to know that this type of altruism is not as unusual as you might think. According to UNOS (the United Network for Organ Sharing), more than 6,000 living, breathing people donate an organ for transplantation every year, and one out of four of them have no biological connection to the recipient.

Still, to just walk into a hospital and volunteer to give up a part of your body....

The woman in Burbank referred to her donor as "my angel," and she's probably not far from wrong. What a phenomenal way for her – for both of them, actually – to ring in the New Year!

So let me end this meditation the way I end many of my speaking engagements: Please consider organ donation. Just consider it. As of this writing more than 74,000 people are on the active national waiting list for an organ transplant, and hundreds die every year still waiting.

Make the notation on your driver's license. Let your family and friends know of your intentions. Once you're gone, you won't need them. Honest. Trust me. The Walking Dead is just a TV series. It's not real.

And as for donating an organ while you're still living, hey – as gifts go, it beats the heck out of a Kindle.