In July 2011, when I received the official invitation from University Kidney Research Organization (UKRO), a Los Angeles-based and non-profit organization specializing in eradicating and treating kidney disease through ongoing research, that they had chosen me as their 2012 Donate Life Float Rider for the 123rd Rose Bowl Parade, I just about fell out of my chair in disbelief and humbled honor. To represent an organization as UKRO and share and show the world the ultimate power of organ, eye, and tissue donation/transplantation from the unbreakable connections of organ donor families and transplant recipients through a float of fresh flowers was beyond my full comprehension. To add to the jubilance and honor, UKRO said that I could choose one guest to accompany me. There was not a single doubt in my mind who to choose, and that person was my Father. Dr. Joseph M. Wu, my Father, was a Professor of Molecular Biochemistry to medical students, and a champion in science and research who completely and wholeheartedly understood UKRO’s mission and goals all too well. Even more than that, my Father was the ultimate strength and survivor of raising my older sister and me (who was chronically ill since nearly a childhood) on his own since I was 8-years-old after my Mother left. My Father was the one constant and rock solid supporter in my life who was there for every doctor visit, procedure, and blood work appointment that deemed if my second kidney transplant was still going strong, and he handled all the emotional, mental, and physical side effects and after effects of each medical expedition with grace, a smile, and a calm and soothing philosophical warmth that always motivated me to be better and to fight for myself and others. All my strength, philosophical mindset about life and people, and my positive attitude and smile came from my Father. And, of course, my Father had no disagreements or discord with choosing him accompany me on all the Donate Life Float and UKRO activities! I never would have believed this to happen. I never imagined or dreamed this. Most of all, I truly did not understand the full magnitude of being chosen as a Float Rider until I was in the sunny surrounding of California and in the company of the most inspirational, beautiful, and extraordinary combination of transplant recipients and especially organ donor families and representatives.
From December 28th-January 2nd, I spent my days in a dreamy fog that revolved around a mass of heartwarming, inspirational, and beautiful events. My Dad and I decorating the 2012 “One More Day” themed Donate Life Float by fluffing up ruby red carnations with people who were all touched by organ donation and transplantation. I dedicated a rose to both my anonymous organ donor families. My Father, spokesperson Valen Cover for UKRO, and I promoted UKRO through media interviews and outreach and my Father and I focused mainly on the Asian community that was still a work in progress when it came to organ donation and transplantation. I was literally floating on a cloud at float judging and completely high on life when forging friendships with kindred spirits who understood my plight and who were and are simply the most remarkable individuals that I could ever meet in my lifetime. I was barely able to sleep, wired, and bursting with so much excitement every single day as I tried to digest and take in every person, every flower, every conversation, and just every breath-taking and beautiful moment.
It was more than fitting to me that the theme of the 2012 Donate Life Float was “One More Day” and all about the preciousness of time, life, and death, when I wanted so desperately to stop the hands of time so I could take in all these treasured moments. But, as we as organ donor families and transplant recipients/candidates know of, time is something we do not have control of and every minute with our loved ones and on this earth either as an organ donor family or a candidate waiting for a life-saving transplant is too precious and often taken for granted.
On January 2, 2012, I was up at 4:00AM after an extremely restless sleep. I carefully dressed in my Rose Bowl parade day attire, which included a shirt supplied by the New York State Organ Donor Network (my local organ procurement organization) that read on the front “An Organ Donor Saved my Life” and the back had a sketch of the New York State Driver’s License with the infamous red heart proudly indicating “organ donor. Also on the front of the shirt were the UKRO kidney bean logo and various U.S. State buttons or pins from my time at the 2010 Transplant Games in Madison, Wisconsin, because the Transplant Games was the first major life-transforming event that had motivated me to become an organ donation and transplant advocate. To complete my parade day attire was a sign that read “THANK YOU- I RECEIVED MY KIDNEY 23 YEARS AGO,” compliments of New York Organ Donor Network yet again when I was invited to and attended an organ donor luncheon event in October 2011. I was ready to fulfill my role as Float Rider for UKRO!!
I was assigned to the first seat at the front of the float and next to the tallest gentleman, who was a heart-transplant recipient and firefighter from San Francisco. It was all too amusing that I was assigned to sit next to him when he was the tallest and I was the shortest out of all us 28 float riders. I thought I was more than ready to fulfill my Float Rider role, but when I finally sat and the wheels of the magnificent and towering “One More Day” Donate Life Float began to move, the song “100 Years” by Five for Fighting began to play, and the crowds of people began to cheer, cry, and scream, I was overwhelmed with a whole blender of emotions. I was filled with humbled honor, joy, vibrant enthusiasm, and tears. All my memories of my Father with me for hospital stays, doctor visits, needles, procedures, and pain flooded me, but then came to a halt when I remembered waking up and recovering from my second kidney transplant that was almost 17 years ago. My two organ donor families from my first kidney transplant at 5-years-old and my second one at 12-years-old still remain an unknown mystery to me, but on this ride of a lifetime Donate Life Float, they were in my head and heart. I wondered if they were watching, and if they ever thought about who received their loved ones organs. Would they be proud of me and all I had fought for to survive and now giving forward in the organ donation and transplant community and public with ongoing advocacy to increase organ donation awareness, inspiration, and registration? With the sun shining, the bluest skies, and the tallest mountains in the backdrop on this ride, I could not stop smiling, grinning, and waving like crazy on the outside to all the screaming and waving fans with tears that streamed down their faces, but I could not stop crying bittersweet tears on the inside for both my organ donor families and for my family, friends, and all the awe-inspiring people that had blessed and come into my life from my health obstacles and challenges. As the wheels of the 2012 Donate Life Float turned and the deafening sound of the crowds and my newfound float friends overwhelmed me, my life and all this extended time that I was blessed to have had on this earth from two life-saving kidney transplants from two organ donors who gave in their time of tragedy had never seemed more indescribably and incredibly small and yet large at the same time
Five miles and about two hours later and as the heat of the sun beat down on us emotional and exhausted float riders, my legs wobbled like Jell-O as I was helped off the 2012 Donate Life Float. I stared at the looming and gorgeous float one last time that had epitomized organ, eye, and tissue donation and transplantation to the world before I shakily stumbled on to the bus that would bring us float riders to a post-reception lunch. I was quietly pensive on bus ride with conversations swarming around me about what everyone thought and how everyone felt. At that moment and the time that has followed post-Rose Bowl Parade and Donate Life Float back in New York, I have looked over and over again at photos and videos to try to find one single word to describe this 2012 Donate Life Float experience as a float rider for the 123rd Rose Bowl Parade, and the only word I can conjure up is “Indescribable,” for this truly is something that has to be experienced, felt, and lived.
How extremely and unbelievably lucky I have been to experience this ride of a lifetime! How grateful I am to UKRO, my Dad, my entire family, my friends, everyone and anyone, and the health challenges that led me to this absolutely wordless and speechless point in my life. It was a privilege, chance, and life-transforming time in my life that I will remember for as long as I live, and these last few days and that one day, January 2, 2012, will remind me until the day I die just how powerful time, life, death, and organ donation and transplantation always will be because it connects all of us in ways that are just “indescribable” and ultimately felt inside the core of each and every one of us.