When I die, I want two things to happen: I want all my organs to be sliced off and given away, if that would be at all possible, and then I want to be cremated.
I am writing it here so that it’s in black on white, because whenever I try to bring up this subject with my next of kin, I usually get an “hmm” and a change of subject. This worries me, firstly because why waste a kidney when it’s functioning perfectly, and secondly, seeing as I am rather claustrophobic, being buried underground is a bit jeepers creepers. I know I’ll be dead, but still, I’d rather my ashes surf freely over the sea waves and go ‘woohoo’ instead of ‘boohoo’.
In case you’re thinking “Ommi ma, xi dwejjaq din dalgħodu!” this is not a column about death. It’s about donating your organs after you’re dead. So please do not avert your eyes and do not hurriedly leaf over.
The Transplant Support Group Malta, in collaboration with the parents of 20-year-old Drew Abela, who passed away suddenly after suffering a brain haemorrhage three years ago, are running a campaign to raise awareness about the need of organ donation. The seven people who received Drew’s organs got a new lease of life. Please note that it’s not just those seven people – it’s seven families who were able to unpause their lives and breathe again.
Life After Drew, as the campaign is called, is asking us to discuss and talk about registering to give our organs so as to save other people’s lives when we die. Many, however, recoil from talking about it because essentially it is talking about death – that taboo word. It’s like we’re scared to even utter it for fear of finding it knocking on our doors.
For this reason, I am asking you to make the sign of the horns, touch wood, throw salt over your shoulders, make the sign of the cross – whatever works for you – and on this Sunday morning we’ll kill some organ donation myths, so that even if you won’t want to talk about it with anyone, at least you can make an informed decision.
Myth #1: If I register as an organ donor all my organs will definitely be taken away, no matter how I die. No. The chances are that the way you die will not allow you to be an organ donor. Less than one per cent of people who die in a year can be organ donors, because you need to die in a specific way: brain death. Only about 10 people a year die like that, usually from motor vehicle accidents, a fall from heights or brain haemorrhage. Also you’d need to be on a ventilator at Mater Dei’s Intensive Therapy Unit. So if you die at home or in any other ward in hospital your organs won’t be taken even if you are registered.
Myth #2. What if I’m unconscious but still alive and they just take my organs away, like in the movies? Of course not. If you are a patient who has suffered an injury to the brain and you are rushed to the hospital, the doctors will work aggressively to save your life. However, be warned that when the brain is injured, it swells, and a swelling inside the skull blocks all upward flow of blood, and with no blood flow, the brain then dies.
Myth #3. They should revive my brain instead of taking my organs. Unfortunately, a brain deprived of blood is not like the heart. You cannot jump-start it, give electric shocks or revive it. Without the blood, the brain cells die. Also, no one will take away your organs if you or your family don’t want to.
Myth #4. So what if I’m brain dead; to be alive, all that matters is the heart, no? No. A person with a dead brain cannot breathe on his/her own, and cannot live, and eventually even the heart will stop beating; the brain controls everything.
Talk and discuss it now and check out transplantsupport.org.mt. As Nike have it, just do it
Myth #5. What if they make a mistake and I am still alive, like in the movies? Doctors perform a specific, repeated number of tests to determine whether someone is brain-dead. People who are brain-dead have no gag response, their pupils do not respond to light, they do not blink when a swab is run across their eyeballs, they do not respond to pain and their lungs stop working – only the ventilator keeps them ‘breathing’.
Myth #6. I cannot be a donor because I suffer from sciatica/ diabetes/asthma. You can still be a donor even if you have a medical condition – once you’re declared brain-dead, and if your wish was to be an organ donor, then tests are carried out to see which of your organs are fit to be given away. If you die of cancer or any transmissible illness your organs are not normally donated.
Myth #7. I cannot be a donor because I am still a teenager/I have the karta anzjan. As long as you are between the ages of 16 and 110, you can be a donor.
Myth #8. It’s my family who decides what to do with my organs when I’m dead. The organ donation register is binding, so if you sign up, the decision would be yours, not your next of kin’s – who might decide not to do it.
Myth #9. The Church is against organ donation because when we go to heaven we need our whole body. No, St Peter won’t be at the pearly gates of heaven’s gates with a clip board ticking your every organ. The Church encourages organ donations as an act of love and a gift of life.
Myth #10. Maybe I should leave it up to my family. Making your wishes known would be very helpful to your family in very heartbreaking situations. So talk and discuss it now and check out transplantsupport.org.mt.
As Nike have it, just do it.
On Wednesday it’s my father’s birthday. He’s going to turn 70. It’s difficult for me to imagine my father at 70 because the last time I saw him he was only 59.
How would he have aged? Would he still be looking the same? Would he still read the Times first thing every morning?
Would he still have piles of books on his bedside table? Would he have retired at 61 or kept on working for a few more years? Would he have gone whale watching in Norway with my mother? What would he think of the paths my life has taken since we last spoke?
There are so many questions I’d like to ask him on his 70th birthday. I should perhaps switch tenses, but I still opt for the use of the present tense because in a way, my father is still alive. He lives in the people who took his organs.
They are able to see their children get married and see their grandchildren being born and grow up, while he waits for us next to St Peter, working on his Sudoku, until we meet again.
Happy birthday, pa.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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