Transplants Bridge Divides

A 16 year old Pakistani girl received an urgent live donor liver transplant in India two months ago. Previously an Israeli suicide bombing victim donated a kidney to a Palestinian woman. Conversely, a Palestinian man’s heart now circulates the blood through an Israeli man’s body. All of these cases illustrate how organ transplantation can move individuals and their surrounding peoples to bridge epic political divides so that the right thing happens. Tragedy morphs into triumph.

Such beautiful selflessness is sometimes seen even within families suffering the serious pain of separation. When Richard Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and conservationist needed a kidney transplant in 1979, his brother Philip donated an organ that then functioned for 26 years. Philip interrupted his own political campaign for the Kenyan parliament to undergo the procedure, indicating that, “There is a strong family bond” according to People magazine. Less emphasized than that act of heroism (every live donor is a true hero) was the fact that the two brothers barely spoke during 20 years despite the transplant, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995.

Behind closed doors, those of us privileged to work in this field often participate in similar stories in which an act of live or deceased organ donation and the subsequent transplant accomplish a connection that had seemed virtually unimaginable or reestablish a bond that had seemed unbreakable. These moments are spectacular even for we crusty old healthcare veterans – good exposed beneath tough outer human shells. Neither contrived nor fictitious, the moments are glorious.

Every plain vanilla case of donation and transplantation is glorious too. When reduced to the smallest scale, every live donor has accepted personal risk to save the life of another, regardless of who the donor is. Any deceased donor’s organs and/or tissues have been gifted to save or better the lives of others, without qualification by demographics. Each recipient has gained a priceless opportunity to remodel or extend life without entitlement, no matter where the organ originated.

Failure to appreciate the magnificence of what is indeed now taken for granted is a mistake. If it takes “bridging” transplants to help  refocus on the amazing altruistic potential  that does lie inside us all, then more of these stories must be told. Perhaps some who would not otherwise have done so will be moved to register to become organ donors. After all, if Palestinians and Israelis, Pakistanis and Indians can help each other, can’t we all do so? And again, let us not overshadow the everyday tales of donation and transplantation that are equally compelling if perhaps somewhat less dramatic.

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