By Peter Jovanovich
When one undergoes a double lung transplant, as I did in 2004, one of the unexpected side effects is an aching sense of isolation. It feels like one is swimming in a sea of healthy people, who do not face the grim statistics of a five-year life span, punctuated by illness and pain, and who will not founder against the tide of fatal rejection or infection.
And then, one day I met Donna Hogben through a mutual friend, and that pool of aloneness evaporated. A longtime resident of Rye, who had a life-threatening lung disease, Donna was gathering facts in order to make an informed decision whether or not to have a transplant. She had heard about my transplant experience, and, typical of Donna, took action by calling me to find out more.
We met in Patisserie Salzburg; and, at first, Donna was all business. “What are the risks? How bad is the medication? What about the side effects?” Eventually, I interjected: “Considering the alternative is lying 6 feet under, the other stuff is not that important.”
Donna smiled and said wryly, “You have a point,” and we were immediate friends.
Before her transplant, and for 11 years after, my wife Robin and I went to plays and movies and dinners with Donna and her husband George, became friends with her children Julie and George, and lived to see our grandson Peter play with Julie’s daughter Isabel.
We laughed – about anything worth laughing about. We laughed about the silly euphemisms that hospitals use, about the farcical sides of political correctness, and the idiocies of modern life. When Donna served as board president of the Blind Brook Lodge Association and I served on the City Council, we laughed about the out-of-this-world demands we would receive. We laughed uproariously when a woman said to Robin: “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but your husband has been seen regularly having coffee with another woman at Patisserie Salzburg!”
And always, there was Donna’s and my unspoken understanding. We experienced the ups and downs of transplant life together — the crises in the hospital, the good “numbers” and the bad, indeed, all of it.
These lines of dialogue from Joseph Conrad’s short story, “The Secret Sharer,” echo our friendship.
“As long as you understand,” he whispered. “But, course you do. It’s a great satisfaction to have got somebody to understand. You seem to have been there on purpose. It’s very wonderful.”
Donna and I together beat the odds – living far longer than predicted. And then in July, she came down with pneumonia, and, within days, was in serious trouble. On visiting her in the ICU at Columbia Presbyterian, it was apparent she was embarked on the downward journey of every lung transplant survivor.
Julie graciously allowed me a few minutes alone with Donna, who was sedated. I wept. I wept for this wonderful, generous, loving woman, for all the people she helped, for her love of her family. And, I wept for myself. My secret sharer was passing away.
Madonna Jeanne Hogben, born in Buffalo on March 27, 1940, died on August 10, 2017.
<“May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”>