Somewhere in my wallet is a somewhat dog-eared organ donor card, stating that I am happy (relatively speaking) for any of me that might be helpful to be used after my death. I rarely give it a second thought now, though I do remember filling it in decades ago, feeling rather solemn about the prospect that it might one day be used and equally virtuous when I told my mum I’d done it.
I was reminded of it because this is National Transplant Week.
About three people die every day in the UK for want of a new organ, while 10,000 people are in need of a transplant that could save – or dramatically change – their life. A thrust of this year’s campaign is encouraging potential donors to make their wishes known: 45 per cent of families agree to organ donation even though they were unaware of their loved one’s decision to be a donor, but this rises to 95 per cent if they knew of the decision.
People’s views about what they might allow to happen to their body after they die are often only thought through once the subject becomes intensely personal. My own research into motor neurone disease (MND) used brain tissue from people who had died from this awful condition. While there was no shortage of “MND brains,” it was fiendishly hard to access “controls” – the necessary comparison.
And it’s perhaps obvious why: the poor patients usually had a year or two to think about how combating this baffling condition might be helped if they agreed to study of their brain after death, while those without a neurological condition were unlikely to have realised how important their brain might be to a researcher.
Indeed, the personal thrust for such decisions was poignantly clear in the frequency with which the spouses of those with MND came through the system as controls some years later.
Here in Oxford, the Thomas Willis Brain Collection is part of the BRC’s infrastructure, facilitating a wide range of brain research projects.
Organ donation – be it for research or to (more immediately) save or enhance lives – is a highly emotive subject. And while I don’t think I mind what happens to my body after I die, I know others who feel very differently for all sorts of reasons, from the squeamish to the spiritual. Or because they have been appalled by scandals such as that in Alder Hey in the 1980s and 90s where organs were retained without permission.
I was with my aunt and uncle when my cousin was dying – ridiculously young – of a stroke, and the subject of organ donation was raised. She carried a donor card, and while her parents were able to do little more than nod assent through their haze of grief, they later told me how extraordinarily comforting it was to know that others had been saved by their daughter’s passing.
While there is surely still debate to be had around the subject, for those who haven’t got round to joining the register yet, it’s worth remembering all the ways in which – if something awful were to happen to you – being on that list might help.