It’s become a joke, but a happy one. My family and I attribute every milestone of my progress to the donated tissue holding my knee together. When I took my first step up a flight of stairs, my dad said it was thanks to my “zombie strength,” as if a ligament donated from a dead person gave me superpowers. It sounds strange, but this donation did give me power. By choosing to be an organ donor, this anonymous person gave me a better life in the midst of their death, and I will always be grateful to be a “zombie” because of them.
The first time I dislocated my knee, I was nine. It was father’s day and my brother chased me around our yard with water balloons. I tripped and fell. My kneecap displaced and stayed on the side of my leg, poking out of my jeans in a way I’d never seen before. The pain was sharp and constant. Moving made it acutely worse and I didn’t know what to do. I screamed, my brother found my parents, and my dad scooped me into his arms. They drove me to the hospital in our minivan. I was carted into the emergency room, I refused painkillers because needles scared me, they cut the leg of my jeans, and I saw my misshapen, grotesque bones out of place. The doctor came. He was distant, unphased by my injury. I looked away as he slid my kneecap back, in a sharp, unnatural contortion. The absence of pain was glorious; each part of my body was in its place again.
I went to physical therapy for a while after that. My therapist taught me how to walk, how to move in a way that wouldn’t upset my fragile leg. Still, I was unstable.
For nine years afterwards, my knee would occasionally dislocate. It would always right itself, almost immediately. I walked and ran with a limp and I never let anybody touch my knee. I grew up afraid of my own steps.
Then, when I was eighteen, I took a bad step on my way to class, and my knee fully dislocated again. It was the same crack in my ears as my bones shifted and my ligaments tore, the same pain. It was cold, and I shivered. Each involuntary movement stung me. I was angry that my body betrayed me, again. I was pissed because I couldn’t walk down the street, like everybody else. People stopped, they called my dad and an ambulance, and a boy put his sweatshirt under my head. A girl in my class distracted me while we waited by talking about how annoying the professor was. I was sent to the hospital and the doctor put my knee where it belonged.
Even thinking about it now, I tense up, curl my left leg in, protect myself. Some days, when I’m walking down the street, I remember how dislocation feels, how easily my knee slid to the side of my leg. My fists tense, and I feel the pain, but I know it’s over. I’m fixed. It’s just that unpredictable pain like dislocation has a way of haunting.
After the last accident, I had a knee operation and in that operation, I received donated tissue. Since surgery, I have re-learned how to bend my leg, how to walk and how to go up and down stairs, all through the same physical therapy program I graduated from when I was nine. Today, I can even go for runs. It’s not always easy. I stumble and limp a lot sometimes, but when I get a good run, it’s empowering. I’ve re-claimed my body. I like synchronizing my legs to move like I was taught, pushing myself hard enough that I can feel a breeze against my skin, and I love that all of it is powered by my body.
I didn’t do it alone. Somebody chose to give their body to me, after they died, so that mine could function. I don’t know anything about them, but because of their decision, we are deeply connected—we share a body. Not only am I grateful for what they have given me, but for what they have given every other person who received their heart, their kidney, their liver, anything. Organ donation is an act of love that lasts beyond death and through life, and it is one of the most beautiful things I have been a part of.
The little box on my driver’s license says “Organ Donor.” I’m proud it does, and I hope yours does as well. The next time you go to the DMV, take a second to think back on me and every other zombie out there. One day, far from now, you might create a zombie, too.
By: Julia Thompson