Kiwis are not big on donating organs, with a bill aimed at increasing donation and transplant rates poised to become law. Stuff looks at those giving and receiving the gift of life.
A year after Jamie Shennan died his mum heard his heart beat.
She heard it in a hotel restaurant and, when she was done, passed the stethoscope to Jamie’s dad so he could listen.
Jamie was 22 when he died and – like the rest of him – his heart was big and healthy and strong.
And now it was beating in the chest of a 60-year-old woman.
It was midnight on June 11, 2018, when Jamie’s organs began their new journey, their new lives, in five new bodies.
Five days earlier the Napier man and two of his colleagues were sightseeing in Oregon when their car was hit from behind while they were giving way to another vehicle.
The back-seat passenger died immediately while Jamie and his 25-year-old colleague were raced to hospital with catastrophic brain injuries.
Back in Napier, when told her boy wouldn’t survive his injuries and that his brain would be dead within 24 hours, Fiona Sheenan’s reaction was instant.
“I said ‘he’s a donor, check his New Zealand licence’ … and there it was in black and white.”
Jamie’s wishes to be a donor were no secret to his family – they’d had “the talk” – and Fiona said nobody baulked when the moment came, bar just one detail.
“The only thing I couldn’t bear for them to take were his beautiful brown eyes – they were the windows to his soul – but afterwards I regretted that.”
By the time Fiona and Grant had raced to their son’s side, his brain had died, and – once the forms were filled out and the tests were run, the harvesting of his organs began.
His left kidney went to a mechanic in his 40s; his right kidney to a married father in his 50s; his liver to a father of seven children; his pancreas to a woman in her 50s, and tissue from his lungs and small intestine went to be used for research.
And his heart?
Almost a year to the day that Jamie died, his parents travelled to the United States where, in the chest of 60-year-old Mindy Decker, sounded the heart of their son.
Fiona listened first, and when she was finished Mindy wrapped an arm around her as she sobbed: her hand still against the stranger’s chest.
“I knew it wasn’t Jamie, there was nothing like that, but it was so special.”
Mindy had been near death before the transplant and Fiona said the trio instantly connected: “We had laughs, we cried, we shared photos”.
In Portland, in the restaurant, Mindy listened to recordings of Jamie playing the keyboard and the guitar.
He was good at that, his mum said.
As soon as the trio met, Mindy asked if Fiona and Grant wanted to hear Jamie’s heart.
“Little did she know we had also taken a stethoscope and were waiting for a moment to say, ‘Can we listen to your heart?’
“Beautifully she put it: ‘It is our heart’.”
After Fiona Shennan’s son Jamie died in the United States, his organs were harvested to save the lives of others.
Jamie came home three weeks after his death.
A plane charted by the company he had worked for carried him for his final trip.
The grief is terrible, Fiona says, but there is solace in what her boy did for at least five other people who would have otherwise died.
A trace of Jamie’s beating heart taken on Decker’s one-year check-up is tattooed close to Fiona’s own heart, a heart that was broken in June last year.
“We’ve lost our boy but what he’s given to so many others makes it just a bit easier.”
WHAT NEW LEGISLATION WILL LOOK LIKE
A bill to improve access to organ donation is currently making its way through Parliament.
The bill is bipartisan, meaning it has the support of both the Government and the Opposition.
Its goal is to increase organ donation in New Zealand by improving levels of compensation for those who donate, and by establishing a new national organ agency to oversee donations.
This decision was made after consultation on the national strategy for increasing deceased organ donation found that an agency independent of District Health Boards should take on the role.
WANT TO BE AN ORGAN DONOR?
If you want to put yourself in the position of saving someone’s life, don’t assume that just ticking a box on your driver’s licence seals the deal – it’s an indication of your interest only, not an official organ donation register.
The most important thing you can do is talk to those closest to you about it, says Organ Donation NZ’s Rebecca Oliver.
With more than 500 people waiting for an organ or tissue transplant, our donation rates are more important than ever.
“If you are ever in a situation where donation is possible, a doctor will ask your family if they know whether you wanted to be a donor.
“If you’ve had a conversation about organ and tissue donation with your family, there’s nothing else you need to do.”
Organ Donation NZ has a guide to what that conversation might look like.
DONATION BY THE NUMBERS
– One donor can save the lives of up to 10 people
– More than 550 people are on the waiting list for an organ or tissue transplant
– In 2018, there were 62 deceased organ donors, which works out to a rate of roughly 13 per million
– In 2017 that number was 73 – closer to 15 per million
– In 2018, donations included 28 lung transplants and 19 heart transplants
– Donors can donate both organs and tissue
– In 2018, there were 74 deceased tissue-only donors, donating eye tissue, heart valves and skin
Source: Organ Donation New Zealand