I’ve been carrying around a somewhat ragged card since 1970 that was signed by me and two witnesses. This card gives permission to transplant any needed organs in case of my death.
I received the card from the National Kidney Foundation while I was in the seminary because I had read a magazine article about the great need for kidneys. Thus, as a Christian and as a Franciscan, I figured, why not? I can save someone’s life by giving away what I no longer need and can no longer use.
In the years since then, science has greatly expanded the number of people we can help by donating organs and tissues after we die. These include hearts and heart valves, kidneys, livers, lungs, corneas, blood vessels, skin, muscles and bones.
One donor can help as many as 60 people. Just think about it: We could do more acts of mercy after death than we did while alive!
Buying and Selling Kidneys
I often donated blood until I contracted hepatitis in Guatemala, which disqualified me. In addition, I signed up to be a bone-marrow donor, should the right genetic match be found. But since I never got hit by a truck, my kidneys and other organs stayed where they were.
Then in 2001 I read an article by Michael Finkel in The New York Times Magazine regarding the growing international market for buying and selling kidneys. The facts were alarming: There are about 50,000 people in this country waiting for kidney transplants and few people who give permission to transplant their organs after death or donate a kidney while they are still alive. Thus, about 2,800 people in the United States alone die each year while on the waiting list.
Many people who are on a waiting list for a kidney transplant spend two or three years on dialysis. Some desperate people who have the funds contact a broker who flies them to a foreign country such as India or Turkey. There they are connected with a poor person who is willing to sell one of his or her kidneys.
I didn’t like what I read, especially when it was noted that the sellers are sometimes not screened sufficiently to see if they are healthy enough to spare a kidney. In addition, they don’t always get proper postoperative care. The buyer gets the best of care and a new life, but the seller often returns to poverty and sickness.
Finkel’s report also gave a crash course on the tremendous progress that has been made in the last few years on organ transplants and the drugs that can control rejection of the transplanted organs. A healthy person who has two good kidneys can safely donate one and live quite normally.
It seems that God has blessed us with an overcapacity as far as kidneys are concerned. When one is removed, the other quickly takes up the slack, grows a bit and does the whole job quite nicely.
The living donor needs no special medication, no diet restrictions and, after recovery from the surgery, no restriction of activity (including running marathons, having babies, playing basketball, digging ditches).
Any surgery, of course, has some risks. But kidney donation by a healthy person is about as risky, statistically, as a hernia operation.
A Kidney to Spare
It’s hard to be a Franciscan for 38 years and a priest for 30 years without something sinking in. I was faced with some alarming facts about the selling of donor organs and the number of people who die while waiting for transplants. Since I was in great health, I probably could live without one of my kidneys.
My decision was influenced by some great role models. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). And St. Francis gave everything he had to the poor: He would even rip the sleeve off his habit if he had nothing else to give.
Thus, I contacted the organ bank nearest where I was living. The staff there gave me lots of information to read and asked lots of questions. Once it seemed pretty sure that I knew what I was doing and that I was reasonably sane, they sent me to a hospital for numerous tests.
Several months later I received the results: I had two dandy kidneys and no health problems, was in my right mind, understood the small possible danger involved in the surgery and was ready to donate.
When permission has been given to transplant an organ from a deceased person, there is a rush to remove and preserve the part that will be transplanted. In addition, the organ must be matched to the proper recipient on the waiting list, who is rushed to the hospital, where the surgical team has been alerted and waiting. This process becomes more complex, but also more rewarding, when multiple organs and tissues from one deceased person are donated to extend the life of more than one recipient.
Transplanting an organ from a living donor involves different arrangements. For example, with a living kidney donor, the organ is transplanted into the selected recipient moments after it is removed. This increases the success rate of live donations to 95 percent or more.
A Perfect Match
When matching a donated organ to the best recipient, there are many factors to consider. For example, a transplant can work as long as the blood types are compatible. But the closer the antigens are, the higher the chance of success. (Antigens are substances capable of producing an immune response.)
Since I was going to be a living donor, the medical professionals were able to examine the entire list of people waiting for a kidney transplant to find the best genetic match (the person least likely to reject the kidney or need massive amounts of antirejection drugs). After they found the ideal recipient, a date was set for the transplant way in advance.
At the parish where I was assigned, we had to make plans for the period of time when I wouldn’t be able to celebrate Mass, due to my surgery and recovery. The pastor, John Gallagher, O.F.M.Cap., was able to take up some of the slack, but some Sunday Masses had to be put on hold for a while. Parishioners didn’t mind when they learned the reason: They prayed for me and the recipient of my kidney.
The day of the surgery, I had to arrive at the hospital early in the morning. Even when I was on the gurney, hospital personnel gave me the chance to back out gracefully and go home if I didn’t want to go through with it. I confirmed that I still wanted to do it.
When I woke up later in the recovery room, I was sore and groggy, but very content. By that evening, I was walking a bit. On the third day, I was discharged.
During the healing process (a few days of goofing off), I experienced some occasional sharp pangs. Tylenol was the only medication I needed for discomfort. Some donors, however, have longer or more painful recovery periods than I experienced.
Seven days after surgery, I celebrated Mass again as usual in the parish. Well, not exactly as usual. I choked up and could barely get the words out when it came time to say again, “This is my body which will be given up for you…. This is the cup of my blood….It will be shed for you…” It meant something more to me now.
The recipient of my kidney is doing fine, off dialysis and on to a new life. (In these “nondirected” or “Good Samaritan” donations, the privacy of the recipient is totally respected. The recipient is free to make the decision whether or not to contact the donor.)
It took about two months until I was fully back to normal. When I have a medical checkup now, new doctors cannot tell that I donated a kidney unless I tell them or they take a CAT scan.
Since my organ donation, I have had the joy of meeting a number of other living organ donors, either in person or over the Internet. They include men and women of various races and ages. They have donated a kidney, or half of their liver, or bone marrow, or even part of a lung.
Patti DiClemente was 56 when she donated a kidney to a stranger, 62-year-old Sam Baten, explains Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette. Patti had made the commitment to become a donor 11 years earlier when her son died while waiting for a bone-marrow transplant. Neither Patti nor Sam knew the other’s gender or identity until after the surgery. Patti describes a benefit she received: “I have two brothers and they’re both dead. But now I have another brother.”
Sam, who had undergone two previous kidney transplants, said Patti’s gift was “an answer to my prayers.”
Another living donor, Cristina Manfre, discovered that she was the best match to her two-year-old nephew and godson, Dante Priebe, whose liver was failing: He needed a transplant immediately. A portion of Cristina’s adult liver was transplanted into Dante shortly before Thanksgiving in 2003. Cristina says she has resumed all “activities and exercise,” and the family relishes watching Dante “run, play and cause trouble.”
Doing the Right Thing
My choice to donate a kidney was one of the greatest blessings God has ever given me. I would do it again without hesitation. It is truly a beautiful work of mercy.
I think all Christians should sign and carry a card giving permission to donate their organs after death, and make sure that their family knows and will respect their wish.
I wish that every healthy Christian would at least give some thought to the possibility of being a living donor—a kidney, part of the liver or bone marrow—to whoever might need it.
Some people donate to relatives, others to strangers. These donors don’t see themselves as heroes, just ordinary folks who decided to do the right thing and are happy they did.
I recently read about a parish where the pastor announced at Mass that a parishioner was in need of a kidney and had no relative who was a suitable donor. Seventy-five parishioners volunteered, and the best match was selected after testing.
According to statistics, about 55 people donated a kidney to an unknown recipient the same year I was a donor. As a work of mercy, this is quite doable. God is love, and giving an organ is a wonderful way that modern science has given us to express and live that love.
Pope Praises Organ Donation
“Transplants are a great step forward in science’s service of man,” said Pope John Paul II in an August 2000 address to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society.
The pope also praised organ donations in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, in which he suggested that a culture of life could be nurtured by donating “organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope” (#86).
Additional details about the Church’s position on organ donations can be found at the Vatican’s Web site by clicking on “English” and typing “organ donation” in the search box.
Many Are Waiting
Thousands of people in this country die each year while waiting for transplants.
For information and statistics, such as the number of candidates on waiting lists for transplants (83,510 on February 10), go to the Web site of the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Gift of New Life
April is National Donate Life Month, to raise awareness of the possibility of organ and tissue donation and to encourage people to sign cards so that their organs may be used after their death.
Patrick Sullivan, O.F.M.Cap, served people in Latin American countries for 24 years and is currently involved in Hispanic parish ministry at St. Elizabeth in New York City. In addition to promoting organ donations, he advises potential donors. This article first appeared in the April 2004 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.