Transplants have been on the periphery of the news at the moment. Maybe that’s an exaggeration but there has been a few stories floating around and despite my fascination in the Olympics I have noticed them.
The first involves a woman in America who was given away by the man that received her murdered father’s heart ten years ago. I think I first noticed this when a friend shared the BBC version of the story on Facebook. Since I didn’t have much of an internet connection at the time I wasn’t able to watch the video but thought the title “Bride walked down aisle with man with her father’s heart” was rather strange. It is unusual to have communication between a donor’s family and the recipient. In the UK anonymity is guaranteed and enforced by the transplant coordinators. It is possible for the recipient to write to the donor family but there is no expectation of a reply, and even if they do there is no guarantee of further contact. To actually meet each other is highly unusual as far as I know.
The other thing that puzzled me was the phrase “her father’s heart”. This may be pedantic but it is made quite clear that when one receives a donated organ, it becomes yours. I received a liver from a woman ten years older than me that died in Enniskillen, that liver is my liver, it may be the second liver that I have had in my body, but it is mine. To be fair, that is headline on the BBC video and when I looked for another version the New York Times headline is “Bride Is Walked Down Aisle by the Man Who Got Her Father’s Donated Heart” and perhaps it is a case of over-shortening the headline to fit in the space provided.
The comments on Facebook were interesting too. Some people wrote about how amazing it was to have the father’s heart there, and what an honour it was for both men. Others thought it was creepy to have a stranger give the bride away whilst others pointed out the high emotional pressure such a situation puts on the donor family and recipient. If you read anything about the story, or watch the video, it is made plain that the women and man had communicated often over the ten years since the transplant. They may not have met, but they hardly seem strangers so I don’t think that issue applies. Unless you completely disagree with the whole giving away symbolism, I think it is indeed an honour to be asked to walk a bride down an aisle, and I guess that in a sense her father’s heart is there though strictly speaking it isn’t her father’s heart anymore. The emotional pressure would be a concern I think, but it would seem both parties are completely okay with the situation.
I think the media play a part here too. I don’t believe the story would have run if the man had been given the father’s liver or kidneys for instance. The romantic connection between the heart and love is perhaps too obviously a good story for the media to miss. Does that matter though? I don’t think so really, other Facebook comments mentioned signing up for a donor card after seeing the story, and generally people being moved to tears saying how amazing it was. The point is that anyone could read that story and be touched by it, and that emotional connection may be enough to help them talk about organ donation with their families and even sign up to donate.
The other article I came across was the story of a hundred year old kidney. The kidney was donate by a 57 year old woman to her 25 year old daughter who is now 68 (can you do the maths?). It is a remarkable age for a donated organ not least because of the drugs taken to suppress the immune system can damage kidney function. It also though gives other recipients hope. All organ recipients have experienced the fragility of life, and every one of us knows that we can die at any moment. I tend not to think about it, but I am aware that my liver may suddenly be rejected by my body even now; equally I could be run over by a car (though probably not whilst I am typing on my laptop). The hope comes from knowing that it is possible to live a life where it won’t be my liver that gives out first.
Taken together these stories help raise the profile of the success of organ transplantation and that needs to happen. In the UK over six and half thousand people are currently waiting for a transplant, some of those will die before they get one.