When he awoke from surgery, his wife was not there to hold his hand, to comfort him by his bedside.
Before Tom Bambrick, a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident, went under to get his new kidney Jan. 24, Marlene wasn’t there, either.
She was in an operating room, too, in another building in the Cleveland Clinic. Surgeons were removing her kidney and preparing it for Tom.
Tom, 55, was about to go into renal failure, and after waiting on a donor list for three and a half years, he couldn’t postpone the surgery any longer. Marlene happened to have the same blood type. After discovering that her kidney would work and that his sister, who was a better match, could no longer donate, Marlene didn’t hesitate to give him one of her organs.
“I could probably never thank her as much as she deserves,” Tom said, smiling at his wife who was sitting across from him on the couch, as he spoke in their Cleveland Heights home. She smiled back at him. “She’s a great woman, my soulmate really. I’m very fortunate to have met this young lady 30 years ago.”
About a week before the surgery, Tom called a local florist to order flowers for Marlene.
He wanted them delivered to Marlene's room, which was separate from his, a day or two after surgery.
When the owner of , Jim Bass, walked into Tom’s hospital room with the vase after the surgery, he told him he made a mistake.
“No, no, no, those go to Marlene,” Tom said.
But Marlene had ordered flowers for him, too, just a couple of hours after Tom had called. Marlene already had hers. These were for him.
“Could you imagine if I didn’t send her flowers?” Tom said, laughing. “Oh my goodness, holy cow. I would have been in the doghouse.”
The surgery was on Monday, and Wednesday they only had an hour “hall pass” to see each other, Tom said. They communicated through their surgeons, getting updates about each other. They were both concerned but hopeful.
"I just kept praying that she was OK, and feeling as good as I was," Tom said. “It was nice to sit there and see her."
Marlene, 54, has been a nurse for almost 31 years at the Cleveland Clinic and isn’t used to being on the other side of the operating table. So she prepared and planned to decrease her anxiety — she knew the surgeons, the anaesthesiologists, the nurses. She wanted to know Tom was taken care of, because she wouldn’t be able to monitor him herself.
She said that her experience will change how she works with patients.
"I talk to surgical patients all the time … but until you have that discomfort and you live it, it’s totally different," she said.
She had signs before the surgery that eased her fears. She was discharged from the hospital on her birthday, Jan. 27, so she had to renew her license before the operation.
“I went in and the woman said, ‘Would you consider being an organ donor?’ And I looked at her, and I said I am going to be an organ donor on Monday,” Marlene said. “And she got this big smile on her face, and said her sister had given her father a kidney.”
She told Marlene about how well her father and sister are now. How well the surgery went.
She also heard one of their surgeons speaking on NPR and read an article about organ donation in The Plain Dealer.
Three weeks after the surgery, Tom and Marlene were still both sore, but had rosy cheeks. Marlene can drive soon, but Tom, who works in garden sales at Bremec on the Heights Garden Center, must wait eight weeks post surgery.
“We went on a big outing to Target a few days ago, and we did two laps around the outer perimeter around the store,” Marlene said. “We were tired after that.”
Neither are supposed to carry more than 10 pounds, and they were scolding each other on Saturday afternoon. Tom said he had to make Marlene stop vacuuming. She shook her head and retorted back that Tom was trying to shovel snow.
The couple does not have children, but neighbors, friends and family are looking after them. On Saturday afternoon, Ron Console, who went to St. Ann's and grew up with Tom, and his wife Patty stopped by to walk their dark gray poodle, Chessie.
Tom has to get his blood taken twice a week to make sure he’s not rejecting Marlene’s kidney, and neighbors and friends have given them rides. They had people staying with them up until this week, caring for them.
Vases full of flowers filled window sills, the kitchen counter and the dining room.
Marlene and Tom told stories of all of the people who have helped them, thanking them, and emphasized how fortunate they were that everything went well. How their care in the hospital was so good that they felt like they were the only patients in the Cleveland Clinic.
Just two days after receiving Marlene's kidney, the red, itchy lesions and blotches on Tom's skin started to heal, he said, pointing to the clear skin on his hands. His eyelids were dry and red and his lips were cracking and bleeding before the surgery, but a few days later, all of the toxins had left his body, and he felt like he had "won the lottery."
He said he's also picked up some of Marlene's personality traits, like her desire and knack to organize the house.
"I always told him all I want is a clean basement, and now he’s really cleaned the basement," Marlene said. "He’s extraordinarily appreciative. He tells me multiple times throughout the day, 'thank you' and 'I love you.'"
Marlene, who had been healthy before the surgery, felt much worse than Tom, which is typical of organ donation, she said.
Tom said he was glad he was getting Marlene's kidney, because he knows how strong his wife is.
"I was bummed out because I was worried about her," he said. "Marlene is more of the pep rally coach. She's never steered me wrong, and always has a positive outlook on things."
Marlene finished his sentence. "We pick each other up."
Both of them had a surprise for each other for Valentine's Day, but the plans were confidential.
"I don't want to break my secret," Tom said. "I have a little something up my sleeve, a little something planned. It will be a lovely day for Marlene."