Back to work this week and finding plenty to warm the cockles of the heart. A quick share of the most pertinent before I get back to the big edit.
This sign appeared in a list of 21 pictures ‘to restore your faith in humanity‘.
And then there was the news that for the first time ever women have won all five Costa Book Awards.
And the statistics that show that people are buying more books in total thanks to aggressive marketing and the rise of e-books. All very salient points for me in my current deliberations.
Then there’s the tantalising pile of books I acquired myself this Christmas.
Who needs resolutions to feel positive at the start of 2013?
So, after a good wholesome break and lots of socialising, I’ve returned to the isolation of my study, and to the current novel, with renewed enthusiasm and commitment. And a fresh eye. Exactly what was needed. The red pen is in overdrive.
Amidst all the hurly burly of summer I’ve been trying this week to get back to the subject of organ donation and my current novel, provisionally called Over My Dead Body. Much of what I do – writing, reading, thinking, re-writing – is rather mundane and not worth reporting, but two events might interest you.
On Thursday morning Radio 4′s Inside the Ethics Committee discussed the case of an 82-year old woman who wanted to donate her kidney to a stranger: an altruistic donation. Wowwa! Steady on! Wait a minute! Would I want a rather ancient used organ myself? Worse, would I want my daughter, my granddaughter even, to get it? As a health care professional, would I say to this sparky little lady, ‘Yes, by all means; go ahead, that’s fine. Good on you.’? And should my squeamishness be allowed to trump her honourable and unselfish intentions?
It was fascinating stuff, made more challenging by my trying to answer all Joan Bakewell‘s questions to the panel of experts before they did.
This sprightly and indomitable octagenarian – Pamela, not Joan Bakewell! – had nursed her severely disabled husband for years until his death, and she’d found kidney failure a particularly distressing phase to contend with. Her husband wasn’t strong enough to have a transplant, but Pamela was determined to personally spare someone else the trauma of dialysis. At first the doctors were reluctant, but against opposition, she persisted. The medical team eventually agreed to test her fitness, and in the end she did indeed donate. And the recipient, still in his fifties, was hugely and tearfully grateful.
The panel explored issues such as: Should an 80-year old kidney go to an 18 year old patient? Should necessarily tight regulations and procedures sometimes be waived in exceptional circumstances? Should people be allowed to take big risks with their own lives? Should a doctor’s moral qualms be allowed to influence decisions? And I found the specific case really helped to concentrate the mind.
Then yesterday off I went to meet the manager of a team of staff who actually work in the business of organ transplantation in real life. And this time I got to ask the questions. As the novel I’m writing evolves, questions present and I keep a tally of the points I need to research. Sometimes the internet provides the answers, sometimes scientific papers. But there’s something really special about talking with folk at the coalface who actually do these things for real.
Boy, was I glad I’d contacted this particular expert. I learned so much, and came away with invaluable information, and additional documentation that will give me even more insights. So, now it’s back to the draft of Over My Dead Body to correct the things that simply wouldn’t ring true in modern practice. Most of it involves minor tweaks, but one strong message I got as I listened is that there’s a deliberately wide gulf between those who deal with the donor’s side of the transplants, and those who focus on the recipients’ side. I knew, of course, that the transplant team were kept away from the donor family so as not to influence decision making, but I didn’t realise the separation is much much wider than that. I was impressed by all the rigour and safeguarding. And I now have to split my fictional medical team more decisively into two.
As always, I’m left greatly indebted to experts who authenticate my stories. And on this occasion, with an additional sense of gratitude that there are such compassionate and sensitive people out there to steer families through the greatest tragedy of their lives, and help to bring something positive out of it.
After last week’s blog kindness has been very much in my mind. So today’s topic is a kind of extension of that thinking.
I want to start with a topical challenge for you: Would you voluntarily donate a kidney to a complete stranger? Think carefully about that before you read on. Would you?
My current book is about organ transplantation so this issue has been an onging preoccupation for me for most of this year. But it’s topical right now because a new charity has just been launched (on 1st of this month) called Give a Kidney – One’s Enough. Explicit enough, huh? But just in case there’s a lingering suspicion – it aims to raise awareness of live-kidney donation. The altruistic kind. Two of the charity’s steering group are themselves donors: Brian Burns-Cox, a physician, and Annabel Ferriman, a medical journalist. The others are professionals working in the field of kidney transplant. So it comes with excellent credentials.
During the past four years since legislation was changed to allow living donations to non-relatives, almost 90 people have come forward to do so. Humbling and inspiring, isn’t it? I mean, you can understand somebody doing it for a loved one, but for a complete stranger?
Would I? Hmmm.
And yet these donations transform lives. And that’s the motivation of this small band of amazing people. They know the burden of dialysis – a burden carried by 6,500 people right now. And that untreated, 300 will die every year if they don’t receive a kidney. And they care enough to go through surgery and bear the potential consequences.
They deserve our sincere gratitude and admiration. Far, far more, in my opinion, that the sportspeople or pop stars who are constantly lauded in the media and who ‘win’ knighthoods and OBEs.
I am feeling both humbled and privileged. But let’s go back to the beginning …
On an icily cold morning in February 2008, Martin was diverted on his way to work because of an accident on his usual route. He called his wife, Mary, and asked her to ring their son, Paudraig, on his mobile phone. There was no answer.
This was a tight-knit Irish community and word travelled fast. The owner of the house at the scene of the accident knew exactly whose car it was. First to arrive were local nurses on their way to work – they knew the driver. Paudraig had skidded on an icy bend in the road and slammed into concrete. By the time his parents arrived at the hospital this vibrant, much-loved lad, aged just 21, was wired up to machinery. And the medical predictions were bleak.
It’s almost too painful to try to imagine their emotions. And yet … they found the courage to do two things very swiftly: they offered his organs for transplantation; and they requested that all his friends and family be given time and opportunity to come in to see him while he was still alive. Both gestures had a profound effect on many lives.
Recently, in the course of research for my current novel, I had the privilege of talking to Mary, hearing her story, listening to the reasons why they did as they did. A more altruistic and generous family it would be hard to find. And as if that were not enough, a package subsequently arrived in the post for me: photos of Paudraig; copies of letters recounting the progress of the organ recipients and their heartfelt thanks; The Northern Ireland Transplant Association leaflets telling Paudraig’s story and appealing for donors; poems and tributes and … incredibly … three pen-and-ink drawings by this hugely talented artist, Paudraig. All unsolicited. Sent to a complete stranger. Treasures beyond price.
If anyone can move the public to sign up to donating their organs, it has to be families like this. In the midst of one of the worst kinds of pain known to man, they yet think of others. They see hope coming out of tragedy, and they are comforted that even in death, their loved ones can reach out to help the needy.
What a legacy.
And all unexpectedly I have fallen inside the orbit of this family’s embrace. Awed and indebted beyond words.
If you have been affected by Paudraig’s story, why not visit www.uktransplant.org.uk today? And remember … do talk to your nearest and dearest about your intentions. A conversation today could save many lives tomorrow.
*Pictures reproduced by kind permission of Paudraig’s family