Live life, then give life is the resolution for donating organs

Oxford Mail: Bill Heine outside the John Radcliffe Hospital Bill Heine outside the John Radcliffe Hospital

IN this festive season of giving, I have a confession to make. I believe the gift of an organ donation is one of the greatest gifts we can offer, but I am not a card carrying member of the Organ Donor Register.

Why do I, like so many other people, believe one way and act another? A key player in this debate, the NHS Blood and Transplant Special Health Authority says “only 31 per cent of families said they would agree to donation going ahead if they are unaware of their loved one’s decision to donate”.

It is clearly unacceptable that 67 people in Oxfordshire waited for a transplant this Christmas and 21 Oxfordshire residents died in the last five years due to a shortage of organs. So the authority wants us to talk about this in the holiday season.

Well, I don’t know if anyone else is going to take up that challenge, but I will.

Why am I not on the Organ Donor Register? I’ve ‘parked’ the decision.

I simply didn’t want to face decisions about my death. I could do that tomorrow…not today and tomorrow never came. So on the hard question of people dying because of no donors, I took the easy path and lived the unexamined life.

I admit I’m squeamish. I don’t like the thought of someone cutting huge chunks out of my body, even though I would be dead.

But, of course, in the UK with an unexpected death it is a legal requirement to have an autopsy to determine the cause of death and this is an invasive inspection of organs which could be removed to save lives. Few people have qualms about this yet most wouldn’t allow organ donation.

Then there are the myths. I thought the optimum source of organs would be a young person in a road traffic accident; and in a borderline case, where the person might, but not necessarily die, would the doctors be faced with this question – Do I save this one person or could I harvest the organs and save six? Would the utilitarian principle prevail: the greatest good for the greatest number?

Do I want to support such a system? The answer is ‘no’, but that’s not our system. Many people in road traffic accidents die instantly, or if they survive they have serious injuries to their organs which make them inappropriate for donation.

Besides, those looking after RTA victims are entirely different and act independently to transplant teams.

The arguments in favour of donation are magnanimity and altruism, the ability to help someone, anyone, a stranger by offering them a new lease on life.

Selfishness is another reason. If I don’t donate, the argument goes, I should not receive. Why should my wife or children and other loved ones have a moral right to receive an organ if I and they don’t donate?

One friend, the author Sara Banerji, argued “When I’m dead I’m just a haunch of meat, so why not take what you need?”

I needed a personal litmus test to check out my position on organ donation. A friend and Headington neighbour, Diana Sanders, had a heart and lung transplant some time ago and invited me last year to Wytham Village Hall for a celebration of “10 years of life”.

She was a survivor. I took her to tea. Could she convince me?

“My donor was 31 and I was 46 at the time of the transplant, so I’m very young at heart,” she began.

“I’ve talked twice to her mother. My donor gave parts of her body to help 30 different people. Even her skin was a gift to children who had severe burns.

My donor worked in a nursery so that must have been a comfort to her family. They’ve talked with me and in a direct way they even feel like family to me. The mother commented that Emma, the sister of my donor, sends her love, even though I’m a complete stranger to her and yet at the same time someone very close. So in a sense I feel blessed with permission to be around all these years.

“But the quality of giving is twice blessed because since the organ donation was so willingly and generously given in the knowledge it would help others, this has made the bereavement easier for the family. It took the sting out of the death for them a little.”

The decision to donate organs is very complex. Even in my own family it was contentious with both my father and my mother.

My father had agreed to donate his brains as part of a research project on ageing. When he died, my mother said “no” to his brain being removed.

We – myself and my three siblings – respected her wishes to leave my dad’s body alone. So I can understand at the point of death why people would say “no”; and that’s how we overrode dad’s intention and decision to donate his brain to science for research.

When mum died, although she was 87 and too old to donate most organs there was an opportunity for her to donate her corneas because that’s the part of the eye which does not age. We four children were split on this decision – three in favour and one opposed who couldn’t bear the thought of my mother’s eyes being removed. The family had only one hour to decide and we all finally agreed, so I know first-hand the trauma and pressure this can cause in a family. The clincher was that mum was on the Organ Donor Register and that took the decision out of our hands.

Imagine having those arguments at the point of death. The question needs more informed debate early so when the decision time comes it is not in the middle of the trauma of death. I hope it comes down to this – “Live life, then give life” – because organ donation potentially affects us all, one way or the other.

Perhaps it’s time for a New Year’s Resolution…

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