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The greatest donation

Despite efforts from healthcare professionals and policymakers world-wide, rates of body donation remain low. The number of patients  in urgent need of a transplant is rising. 

Everyone has their own preference as to what it means to be a hero. Depending on age, gender, cultural background, the individuals we look up to will differ. Your hero may be the Olympic athlete you watch wide-eyed on your television screen; they may be a musician who guided you through those awkward teenage years. Your hero may be your mother, father, brother, aunt.

Despite our differences, it seems there’s one act of heroism that it unanimous: saving lives. Perhaps the most powerful thing a person can do, those who save the lives of others are consistently praised in our culture: in fiction, in the media, in art, in science.

A few weeks ago, the Nobel Prize for Medicine – an award indicating heroism if there ever was one – was awarded to Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi for his pioneering discoveries of cell mechanisms that have given scientists new perspectives on cancer and neurological diseases.

Indeed, the prospect of helping dying individuals to survive transcends any value we place in academic or monetary achievement: it is a power of raw humanity.

Why then is saving lives through body donation so stigmatised in our culture? Why do we reject the possibility of helping others? I refer specifically to organ, stem cell and bone marrow donation – gifting a healthy part of your body to the suffering body of another. This is possible both when the donor has passed away and when they are living, depending on the type of donation. Organ and stem cell donation can treat a wide range of life-threatening conditions, including chronic kidney disease and blood cancer.

In 2013, the BBC reported that just 31% of people in the United Kingdom are registered organ donors. Put simply, registering means you are agreeing that your organs and tissue may be used to help someone who needs a transplant after you have passed away.

England, Scotland and Northern Ireland currently operate using an “opt-in” system for donation: becoming an organ donor requires actively adding your name to the register. In December 2015, Wales adopted an “opt-out” system, which presumes consent unless an adult individual actively registers that they do not wish to be a donor. Early last month, NHS Blood and Transplant released figures indicating that the results of this change were positive: more organs were being donated, more lives were being saved. So what’s stopping the rest of the UK?

There are many reasons why members of the population oppose donating organs. In 2008, the Organ Donation Taskforce – a UK government-appointed body – released a report that rejected the idea of an opt-out system, despite support from both the Royal College of Surgeons and the British Heart Foundation. The overriding justification seemed to be a matter of trust: the taskforce asserted that patients in intensive care and their families may worry that, under a presumed consent system, less effort will be made to keep them alive if their organs could potentially save another person.

As well as issues of trust, stances that oppose an opt-out system and organ donation as a whole are motivated by religious and ethical beliefs. These reasons must of course be respected no matter where you stand on the issue.

But if an opt-out system prevents suffering and death by increasing the number of donors, it is surely the favourable option for the health of our society. The 2008 report signalled the negative connotations around organ donation that existed then and continue to exist today. The effort by medical professionals to implement a presumed consent system in the rest of the UK continues in 2016: in June, the British Medical Association voted to actively lobby for one.

Donating stem cells, unlike donating most organs and tissue, can occur when the donor is living. A separate register – run by the NHS and the blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan Trust – holds the names of those who have provided a small sample of saliva or blood and have opted to be a donor. Donated stem cells are used to treat blood cancer and rare blood conditions – the stem cells of a healthy donor who is found to be a match for a patient are extracted from their body and gifted to the patient who needs them.

Healthy stem cells can come from three sources: bone marrow, blood collected from an umbilical cord, and peripheral (or circulating) blood. The latter is the most common form of donation, and is performed using a process similar to that of giving blood.

Georgia Lewis, a former Sussex student who graduated this year, was recently called up for a donation by Anthony Nolan. She told me about her experience.

“I couldn’t believe I was a match for someone. Having only been on the register for a few months, it seemed like a miracle,” she says. “The donation process itself was fine, just a little draining. I had four sets of injections to trigger my stem cells to overproduce, causing aches and pains in my limbs and lower back. However, the Anthony Nolan nurses were exceptional once I made it to the clinic in London to donate”.

Ms Lewis gave me some detail about the process itself: “after two days of lying in a hospital bed while a whirring machine separated cells from my blood, my little stem cells were sent to my recipient for their transplant! I am hoping and praying that it was a success, and that maybe one day I can meet them,” she says.

The short-term discomfort of the donation process didn’t deter Ms Lewis, and she urges everyone to sign up to the register. “Nothing beats saving a life and it is something I will never forget and still can’t really believe I did”.

Ms Lewis is happy, healthy and working in a graduate job at a fashion company. Her donation will impact the lives of so many, and she has contributed to the heroic effort to fight cancer and terminal illness.

Ms Lewis registered to become a donor whilst she was a university student, and many others have done the same.

Ruth Chanarin, President of the Brighton and Sussex Marrow Society, tells me that 1 in 4 matches found by Anthony Nolan in the UK are recruited by University Marrow groups. She stresses the importance of getting as many people as possible on the register: “since it is so difficult to find a suitable stem cell match, there needs to be a greater number of potential donors to select from. The work of Marrow groups is truly life-saving stuff, and well worth getting involved in”.

Ms Chanarin and the rest of the Marrow Society work year-round, fundraising and recruiting to fight blood cancer, and giving patients hope for a last chance at life.

Last Wednesday, the society hosted a recruitment drive at the Students Union, signing up potential donors. If you missed it, keep an eye out for the next one – signing up by giving a small sample of saliva means you could help one of the thousands of people diagnosed with blood cancer in the UK every year. You can find more information about becoming a donor by talking to someone from the society or on Anthony Nolan’s website.

If becoming a donor isn’t right for you, there’s plenty of other ways to help out, including buying cake from the regular sales the the Marrow Society hold.

This summer, The Guardian reported that 1,000 patients in the UK die every year because of organ shortages – a change in attitude and an openness to becoming a donor could prevent these lives from being lost.

Every 20 minutes, someone in the UK finds out they have blood cancer, and the gruelling treatment begins. 60% of patients currently find their best possible match from a stranger – this number drops to 20.5% if the patient is from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background. The importance of building and diversifying the stem cell donation register cannot be stressed enough.

The universally heroic act of saving a life is undeniable, but the stigmas attached to body donation continue to prevent lives from being saved. The passion of student movements has proved capable of provoking real change, and we can all be part of a wider effort to raise awareness of the positive impact body donation has on so many lives.

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