The idea of sharing a part of oneself with another person is rooted in both religion and organ donation. For some, the concept goes back to the very beginning, with God as the first “transplant surgeon.”
“We hear often from people that Adam and Eve were the first donors, because Adam gave his rib to Eve,” said Audrey Coleman, director of communications for Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency. “One of the venues we like to do outreach is with religious organizations. People have a very trusting relationship with their church and if they go to their church and hear about it, they’re more likely to act on it. The idea of giving life to someone else or improving their lives … has a very spiritual aspect about it.”
Catholic Church teaching says organ donation is positive, said Father Jason Tyler, diocesan bioethicist and pastor at St. Edward Church in Little Rock.
“As long as the donor is truly making that donation as a gift and there’s not any selling of organs and that sort, we’re very much in favor of that; it’s very much an act of charity on the part of the donor,” Father Tyler said.
The stipulations are a living donor must not intentionally cause harm to themselves to benefit another, such as giving their cornea to another person, becoming blind themselves. For the deceased donor, they must be legally dead, which is centered more now on brain activity rather than heart function.
“Fortunately, the secular medical ethics community is pretty much on the same page as us here,” Father Tyler said.
On Nov. 13-15, the annual National Donor Sabbath will take place throughout the United States. Launched in 1997 by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the event is a time for religious congregations to share information and presentations about organ donations.
“Every major faith group in the United States believes organ donation to be a charitable act,” Coleman said.
Father Tyler added, “Scripturally speaking, I would point to anything that speaks about love of neighbor, love your neighbor as yourself. What’s a greater way to love somebody than to give them part of yourself? … We should never think OK, this dead body doesn’t matter. It has great dignity and great value and nonetheless the organ can be taken from a body and be used for another person without disturbing the dignity.”
Deacon Rex Bouldin, who served at St. Mary Church in Paragould, had a matter-of-fact view of organ donation. He thought, “We don’t need them so someone else might use them,” said his wife, Jennifer Bouldin. He died in April 2012 from a heart attack and though they were not able to save Rex’s organs because of donation restrictions — a person must die at a hospital to be able to donate organs to make sure there is oxygen flow — two people received his corneas and others received tissues.
“They could still take bones, skin, muscle tissues like tendons. I know for sure the two people regained their sight that received the cornea,” she said.
Because a person must die in a hospital, less than 1 percent of people are eligible to be organ donors. They can, however, still be tissue and eye donors.
“It is a low number, most people are really, really stunned to find out. … The only way that’s going to be possible is if a person is on a ventilator. People with brain deaths are most likely to become organ donors,” Coleman said. “Organs have a very short time frame to be recovered, four to 12 hours,” which encompasses the whole process, including transplantation.
However, there are no age requirements to be an organ donor or to be a recipient. There are some age limitations on tissue and eye donations.
Organ donation can save the lives of even the smallest in society and it cannot get much younger than Andres Pena. He was two months old when he had to have a heart transplant in March 2006 because of hypoplastic left heart syndrome.
“I just remember praying to God and I was upset and mad. Why were we being punished for him being born like that? The moment I got pregnant I was taking care of myself,” said his mother Georgina Pena, who works for Catholic Immigration Services in Little Rock.
The surgery was a success.
“As a mom, we do everything we can for our kids. I can’t imagine the pain the family had to go through, but with the gift they gave to my son I’ve been able to enjoy his life, his laughs, his hugs, his ‘I love you Mom.’ No amount of words or thank yous can show how grateful and thankful we are for their decision.”
Now 9 years old, Andres takes medicine every day and goes to Arkansas Children’s Hospital once a month. But, he’s like any other child “unless he lifts up his shirt,” showing his scar, his mother said.
There are currently 124,000 people waiting for an organ nationally and about 300 in Arkansas. Last October while meeting with the Transplantation Committee for the Council of Europe, Pope Francis said, “Organ donation is a testimony of love for our neighbor.”
There are 1.3 million registered donors in Arkansas. The need for donations is crucial, particularly with kidneys, Coleman said.
“People usually think heart … but the organ most in need, not only here in Arkansas but nationwide, is kidney because of some of the so-called lifestyle illnesses — hypertension, diabetes,” Coleman said.
Then there are those like Martha Wright, 71, a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary in North Little Rock (Marche), who is healthy, other than her kidneys. Wright was diagnosed with IgA Nephritis, a rare and irreversible kidney disease, 11 years ago after her annual physical and was treated with chemotherapy and prednisone. She was in remission until about two months ago when she was diagnosed with kidney failure, with 13 to 15 percent kidney function.
Wright has since done at-home dialysis, taken sick leave from work and had to reduce her church work, which includes fundraising for the poor in countries like Haiti.
“I need the kidney transplant. They say I am a perfect candidate because I’ve never smoked, I don’t drink and otherwise I was in pretty good health,” said Wright, who has filled out the paperwork and is waiting to get on the transplant list. “I trusted in God but naturally you ask why; and spiritually, I knew there was a purpose, that God had a purpose for me going through this and asked him to lift me up and keep me full of the Holy Spirit and he has done that.”
A registered donor herself, Wright is hopeful that she will soon be able to get back to her church work and life thanks to someone else’s generosity.
“A person can live with one kidney. I would give my organs; it’s even on my driver’s license,” Wright said. “I think it’s a way of giving back and if it saves someone’s life, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Our Lady of Good Counsel parishioner Gina Bailey has been on both sides of an organ transplant. She said it was an “honor” to give her father, Frank Hodges, a kidney so he no longer had to suffer on dialysis back in 1992. He lived six more years, dying from a suspected brain aneurism.
Bailey, a married mother of a 16-year-old son, had her gift come full circle when in 2005 she was diagnosed with liver cancer and needed a new liver to survive.
“It’s hard to convince a 16-year-old boy he can live without you when he very much needed his mother,” Bailey, 54, said. “It questions your faith, for a minute anyway. You have to go on.”
However, on June 28, 2005, she found a donor, who happened to also be a 16-year-old boy.
“So that was hard on me. You’re so excited you got this second chance at life to raise your son and see your grandchildren, but somebody died and you mourn that person and you mourn with his family,” Bailey said. “I did take the opportunity to write the family a letter. How can you thank somebody for your life? I said thank you and I am so sorry for your loss and you’ll always be in my prayers. I think about him all the time, but certainly on my anniversary, he’d be 26 years old. I try to mark the milestones with them because I know that’s what they’re doing.”
For Bailey and other organ donors, being able to give the gift of life has been a blessing.
“I feel humbled. That’s the best word I can come up with,” Bailey said. “There are thousands of people waiting for an organ. If you’re not going to be using it, then why not give it? It is the greatest thing in the world to know you saved somebody’s life or improved somebody’s life.”
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