Compassion in Action

Compassion in Action

The next time you’re lying in bed at night trying to get some sleep, take a moment and listen to your body. You’ll hear the digestive gurgles, breath coming in and out of your chest, and perhaps the faint beating of your heart. Your body is amazing. Every little cell that makes up your form — approximately 37.2 trillion of them — is unique to you, and each little one helps keep you alive.

Now, imagine for a moment that maybe some of those cells don’t work quite the way they’re supposed to. Maybe you’re missing a few vital little cells and need to find a replacement. Imagine that instead of lying in bed listening to the wonder of your body work to keep you alive, you’re listening to the malfunctioning parts of you that are potentially going to kill you.

When it comes to saving another person’s life, people tend to immediately think about great acts of heroism: “She pulled me out of oncoming traffic!” “I tripped and, I swear, if he hadn’t caught me, I probably would have died falling down those stairs.” “I was drowning, and if Charlie hadn’t been such a keen-eyed lifeguard, I wouldn’t be here today.” Acts such as these are extraordinary in every way, but for the regular non-heroic citizens of the world, there is a far simpler way to potentially save human lives.

Transplantation practices began in New Zealand during the 1940s, with the introduction of corneal grafting. The first organ to be successfully transplanted was a kidney during the 1960s and, around this time, heart-valve transplantation processes were also introduced. The first full heart transplantation happened in 1987, at Green Lane Hospital in Auckland. It wasn’t until the 1990s that transplantation of skin, lungs, liver and pancreas began in New Zealand. Since then, organ donation and transplantation has continued, albeit a lot slower than our population requires.

New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of organ donation in the developed world. According to statistics from the Northland District Health Board, organ donor levels in New Zealand are low compared with Australia and the United Kingdom, with annual donations in 2013 at 8.7 organs per million people versus 13.5 and 16.4 respectively. In June, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman put forward the idea that New Zealand should consider a donor register, similar to the one Australia employs.

Michael Catterall, a third-year university student, is planning to donate his kidney in the summer of 2016. “It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time,” he says, but he only began organising himself properly after taking a philosophy paper in his first year of university that made him feel like donating would be the “moral” thing to do. After first contacting people about donating when he was 18, Catterall was told to wait a few years to mull it over and then come back if he was still sure. He did go back, and has found throughout the entire process that organ donation follows an “absolutely zero pressure policy” and that everyone involved wants to ensure people are donating of their own volition. Catterall has thus far had three psychological evaluations to make sure of this. “Most people would donate their kidney to a dying family member … I personally feel that someone not being related to me isn’t a strong enough reason to not save their life.”

According to the Northland District Health Board, in 2012 there were 56 kidney, 34 liver, 13 lung, 12 heart and three pancreas transplantations in NZ. There is currently a long waiting list for organs, particularly kidneys (in excess of 500). Many of these people will die before an organ is available.

There is currently a long waiting list for organs, particularly kidneys (in excess of 500). Many of these people will die before an organ is available.

Catterall said that even with “family member in crisis” situations and death being both reasonably common in the grand scheme of things, there are always people outside of these scenarios needing functional organs. “It seems so sensible, a minor inconvenience to me and three to six weeks off work [for me to] save a life, and tens of thousands of dollars in dialysis.” Catterall found that beginning the donation process was a little confusing at first — “maybe that’s intentional [so they] only get serious inquiries, but a more structured system with a bit of public appeal would be an easy way to save lives and money”.

In terms of public appeal, Jonah Lomu, who suffers from an uncommon kidney condition called nephrotic syndrome, had a kidney transplant in 2004. The organ in question was donated by ZM Radio DJ, Grant Kereama, and it served him well until it began to fail in 2011. The search began for another donor, and the interim time waiting meant thousands of dollars spent on regular dialysis treatment. Even with such a high profile New Zealander attempting to bring light to this issue, this country continues to be static in the face of rising donation requests nationwide.

Explanations for the lower rate of donation in New Zealand tend to focus on cultural reasons. Many Maori and Polynesian people tend to not favour the transplantation practice, even though they are more likely than other New Zealanders to need one (due to a disproportionate rate of renal disease).

Sometimes a person’s own spirituality may cloud their judgment. Certain religions prohibit the removal of a person’s organs after death (e.g. traditional Shinto), or, in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the transfer of blood from one person to another. This is particularly problematic for any members who experience accidents and require blood transfusions. The church will revoke the membership of anyone who participates in a blood transfusion — even to save a life.

The Vatican has stated in the past that it strongly supports organ donation, although it is less supportive of any transplants that use stem cells. This is because originally stem cells were obtained from miscarried/aborted embryos, but this is no longer true. Eastern Orthodox Christianity takes a similar view.

Hinduism and Buddhism have no specific rules regarding the donation of organs; instead, the decision is left to each individual’s own conscience. Mainstream thinking in both religions, however, tends to view the act of organ donation as admirable and compassionate. Similarly, Islam supports organ donation; many Muslim people see it as charitable or required to preserve life.

Catterall has shown little hesitation in his quest to donate his kidney to someone who desperately needs it, and it seems that many people around his (Generation Y-ish) age feel similarly. “If I’m dead, I’m not using my organs. Why shouldn’t someone else?” Thomas Norman is a third-year theatre studies student who has “donor” written on his driver’s licence and says that he didn’t think twice when ticking that little box on his licence application. “I almost feel like there’s something slightly selfish about not declaring yourself a donor. Aren’t you just letting yourself go to waste?” University students, as stereotypical as it may sound, tend to experience a shift toward more open-minded attitudes during their time in study, and perhaps it is during this period that we should be asking more questions about donation (organ and blood alike). As the organ donation process tends to require around three months of rest afterward, it is an option perhaps best considered before settling yourself into a full-time, full-year career.

Approximately 53 percent of New Zealand driver’s licence holders have said “yes” to being classified as donors. This seems like a good figure, until you realise that, in the event of a person’s death, the final say on whether or not their organs will be donated lies with the deceased person’s family (or another executor). The time period after a person’s death during which organs can be removed for donation is very short, leaving a small window for a person’s family members to make the call on whether or not their kin’s organs will be donated. Therein lies one of the biggest reasons why New Zealand has such a low rate of donation. Family members may not have been made clear of the deceased’s donation wishes, and in the sadness of grief they choose to keep their person “whole”.

One of the simplest ways a person can use what their body has given them to help others is by donating blood. Only four percent of New Zealanders currently donate, when up to three people’s lives could be saved from a single donation. According to the New Zealand Blood Service, up to 3000 donations are required each and every week to meet our hospital needs.

Sarah Bolton donates blood every month, and she will enthusiastically encourage anyone who asks about it to do the same. “My blood type is O- and my mother has the same. She donated from the time she was 25 through to 45, when she starting taking medication that meant she couldn’t anymore.” It was this dedication that inspired Bolton to start donating once her mother no longer could. With the most requested blood type on the planet, O- people are a valuable commodity. There are no restrictions on who can and cannot receive a blood transfusion from this type of blood. “It’s a few minutes out of my day every month, plus I get juice and biscuits during the process. As a student who struggles to properly feed herself, I will not be complaining about this.”

In terms of health risks, death during surgery sits at around a 0.03 percent risk. This is far lower than the risk of being in a road accident while driving in Auckland (which is 0.19 percent according to the Ministry of Transport). Kidney donors exist in a highly selective and necessarily healthy group and research is still conflicting as to whether there is significant long-term health effects. 

It is illegal to pay anyone to donate their organs or blood to ensure there are genuinely altruistic reasons for donating. The only country where it is legal to donate a kidney is in Iran and Australia is close too having recently introduced the idea of offsetting lost wages from the hospitalisation period. They will pay the minimum wage for up to six weeks.   However the ethics of paying people for donating organs is too much of an issue – do we want a society where the poor are a source of organs for those with the dollars? 

If you’re a donor, you need to make it clear. Tell your family, tell your friends; you don’t need to go over the top with it, but at least say, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that if anything bad were ever to happen to me, I’d like my organs to be donated to people who need them.” Or at the very least, perhaps next time the New Zealand Blood Service swings by campus, you can drop in for a visit.

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2015.
Posted 12:35pm Sunday 9th August 2015 by Lydia Adams.