by Sister Mary Brendan Conlon, OSU
I have always been a saver, not a hoarder, but a saver of things that may be useful to me or someone else in future.
My friends have kidded me that it was because I was a Depression baby. There may be something to that. My mother was frugal and hated waste—”take what you can eat and eat what you take” —and my father was always saving—for a home for us, for a car, for a business to support our family. That might be one reason why I find it is hard to ignore a dropped penny or an errant rubber band or paper clip.
There is something universal about the approval of efforts to recycle and reuse. People smile at retired businesspeople who repair and repaint toys and give them to needy children, as they smiled at the recent story about the man in England who is restoring the red phone booths that once were the signature of downtown London. He’s giving them new lives, repurposed as free exchanging libraries, flower booths, boot shine shops, even small electronic items repair shops.
And many smiled, perhaps through tears, as they read the story of the little boy from England who was shot while vacationing with his parents in Europe and whose parents donated his organs to those who needed them. Later the journals carried a picture of the five or six persons or more who found new life through those parents’ generous gesture.
And that made think me of something. I have read that there are some 150,000 people in this country alone who are waiting for organ transplants. Many are waiting for hearts, kidneys, or lungs, but today there are many other ways that people can be helped through transplants. As I learned more about it, I began to wonder why it is that people who might selflessly endanger their own lives to rescue someone from a burning building or someone threatened by flood waters would send to the grave organs or tissues that might give life or a longer life or a better quality of life to someone else, without any risk or cost for oneself. I am speaking of organ donation after death.
The only answer I could come up with was that they never thought of it—or were deterred by myths or unanswered questions about organ donation. One of the myths is that hospitals can use only young healthy bodies, that there is an age limit for donation. According to www.organdonor.gov, U.S. Government Information on Organ Donation and Transplantation, “People of all ages can be organ donors. . . . Being older doesn’t mean you can’t be a donor. Doctors will decide at the time of your death whether you can donate.” They cite the account of a 92-year-old man whose liver donation saved the life of a 69-year-old woman. “In 2016, 1 out of every 3 people who donated organs was over the age of 50.”
Another myth is that a donor body is accepted only through a hospital, not from a nursing home. According to KODA, the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates, when death occurs in a nursing home, the nursing home contacts the coroner, who will contact the organ donation affiliate for that state. Arrangements for donations should be made beforehand wherever possible, by the donor themselves.
Organs that can be donated at time of death are kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, pancreas, and intestines. In 2014, hands and faces were added to the list. By registering as a cornea donor, a person can also donate his/her corneas, the clear part of the eye over the iris and pupil. Since 1961 more than 1,700, 000 have had sight restored through corneal transplants.
Most of us, when we think of transplants, are thinking of hearts or lungs or some other major organ, but in recent decades there have been many advances in the transplanting and use of tissues. Heart valves, skin, bones, veins, and tendons can play valuable medical roles. Skin, for example, can be used for burn victims to protect wounds for as much as six weeks, to allow patients to grow new skin without the trauma of frequent dressing changes, which carry the danger of losing new skin and introducing infections. Unlike an organ donation, that usually provides only one of a kind of organ to a patient (lungs and kidneys being the exceptions), tissue donations can serve more people. A heart valve donation can serve two people, a vein donation two or three, a skin donation as many as eight, and a single bone donor as many as a hundred people.
Another big difference between organs and tissues is how long they can be kept and be useful—hearts and lungs must be transplanted in about 4 hours, liver and pancreas about 24 hours, and kidney about 72 hours, while many tissues, though removed within 24 hours, can be processed and kept for a longer time.
Some of the things that people who are considering donating wonder about:
What does it cost? Nothing. All costs associated with donation in all states are paid by approved organ procurement organizations.
Can funeral arrangements be made by families? Yes. The recovery of organs and tissues doesn’t ordinarily interfere with customary funeral arrangements. In most cases an open casket is possible. When skin is taken, it is superficial, “about the thickness of a Kleenex, leaving an appearance as sunburn when removed.” And skin is taken from non-visible parts of the body, such as the abdomen and the thighs. If cremation has been chosen, that can be done after the valuable organs and tissues have been salvaged.
When are organs/tissues removed and how is it done? Donated organs are removed as soon as possible after brain death. Physicians with the transplant team will come to the hospital, “where utmost care and respect will be shown in the recovery of life-giving organs.”
I was especially happy with this last answer. When I was around forty or fifty and just started thinking of donating my body, I was almost deterred by some movie or TV show that had medical students joking about their stiffs. “Not me, body mine, gift of God,” I said. “You have housed my soul, my gift of life, these many years and I will not let it be disrespected by anybody.” Now I’m 90 and that stupidity does not bother me, as long as I know what I am doing and why. But I still like the answer.
Do ethics and religion approve of organ and tissue donation? “Faith leaders around the world support such donations as expression of the highest humanitarian ideals. The gift of an organ or tissue essential to the life of another human being is consistent with the principals (sic) of religious teaching.”
More to the point, does God approve? As I’ve said, I’m 92, and since no opportunity has ever offered me to give my life for another or to God, as in martyrdom (but I might have been too slow or too afraid if it had), surely God will accept my next best thing: the gift of the body that has been my sacred companion for these 90 years—and the gift of life, or longer life, or a better quality of life—for one of His children. And the Jesus who told the disciples after the feeding of the multitude to gather up the fragments “that nothing be lost,” would surely approve.