Life after life

Artur Stelmasiak

There is a need to instil in people's hearts, especially in the hearts of the young, a genuine and deep appreciation of the need for brotherly love, a love that can find expression in the decision to become an organ donor (address of the Holy Father John Paul II to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society, Rome, 2000).
They do not know their donors. They do not know who the people who have given them their organs are. But they think about them; they pray for them. Some part of the dead donor is alive and people after transplant were born again.
Almost 1,600 people are waiting for kidney, liver or heart transplants. The queue is very long. Certainly, some of them will not live that long to receive a new organ, i.e. to be born again, to have a chance of further life. The Polish transplantology has experienced a dramatic crisis since the beginning of the year. The corruption affair in the ministerial hospital in Warsaw has limited this unique method of treatment to a considerable extent. The number of donors has drastically decreased. ‘It is the media that are to be blamed for that in the first place. The reports in the media based on imprecise or false information have a negative influence on the social reception of transplantation as a method of treatment’, stresses Prof. Wojciech Rowinski, the national consultant in clinical transplantation. A lot of sensational news has appeared in the media and it has nothing to do with the real situation.
As a result, only 748 organs have been transplanted till November, and it is predicted that there will be about 200 transplantations by the end of the year, altogether ca. 950. In the year 2006 the number of transplantations was much bigger and amounted to 1,258, which means that the number of transplantation has decreased by one-third. ‘It is always easy to damage something. But it is more difficult to get it right. Therefore, a lot of effort is needed to reverse this wrong-headed trend’, explains Krzysztof Pijarowski from the Society ‘Life after Transplantation’.

Astronomer with somebody else’s liver

Magdalena Sroczynska-Kozuchowska is a dedicated mother of two adult sons. Once she loved her job very much. She has a doctorate in astronomy. She was employed in the Polish Academy of Sciences. Things went well in her life until one day. In the mid 1980s she had health problems. ‘I felt some pain. However, I did not belong to those who often visited doctors. I took some painkillers and went on’, she recalls. But her condition got worse. Only after the detailed examination in 1994 she learned about her illness. She was shocked. ‘I learnt that I suffer from cirrhosis and that my liver was simply getting rot’, Magdalena says. The real tragedy began in 1996. The stiff liver began blocking the blood flow. ‘That blood had to find some way out. It reached the stomach and I began vomiting’, Mrs Kozuchowska recalls. Then her slow agony began. ‘I saw my mother was passing away’, her son Lukasz says. ‘We could see that she was getting weaker and weaker. I feared that she was dying’, adds Martin, her younger son. The word ‘transplantation’ was spoken for the first time in 1998. ‘I agreed to that possibility at once. I completely trusted my doctor. The transplantation meant ‘to be or not to be’’, Mrs Kozuchowska says. The boys were anxious about her being operated. ‘I remember visiting my mother just after the transplantation. She had drains, pipes and drips. It seemed to me that her life was sustained by that apparatus. I was very anxious about her life’, Marcin recalls. He says that he was very helpless then. ‘I could not do anything. I was sitting in my room and was praying a lot’, he says. The operation was very successful. It occurred that Magdalena was the eighteenth person in Poland that had liver transplant. The Kozuchowski family recovered their mother. For the last ten years Lukasz and Marcin’s mother has celebrated the anniversary of her transplantation. She thinks that she was born again on that day.
‘I think that the motto ‘Do not take your organs to heaven. There they know that the organs are needed only on earth’ perfectly expresses the essence of Christian love. I will not take my organs to heaven. I have signed the donor information statement. This is the greatest gift another man can give’, Marcin says.

Organs do not grow on trees

There are thousands of such dramatic stories with happy-ends. Since there have been almost 16,000 transplantations in the history of the Polish surgery. One can say that doctors, donors and their families have rescued a middle-sized district town in Poland.
But some things do not depend on the doctors themselves. Transplantation is a socially sensitive way of treatment. It differs from other methods because doctors need organs that cannot be bought or produced. Organs must be taken from other people. A kidney or a part of liver can be given by a relative: family or friends, apart from the dead, whereas lungs, hearts, livers and pancreases must be taken from healthy people who have died suddenly. The paradox is that although most people accept the possibility of transplantation a considerably fewer people agree to donate the organs in case of their deaths. The same concerns the death of close relatives. ‘After all, kidneys, livers and hearts do not grow on trees’, the originators of another social campaign try to convince people. ‘Transplantation is impossible without donors.’
The consent of the family is needed to take organs from the dead. This does not result from the Polish law but from the medical ethics and human honesty. ‘This is very hard when a doctor must inform about some death and then ask if the family gives consent for organ donation’, says Prof. Rowinski. Therefore, the whole environment connected with transplantology promotes the so-called statement of the will, which you can keep with your documents. We declare that we want our organs to be used in transplantation. These donor information statements are not legally valid but they can be crucial when a doctor asks the family to consent for organ donation. ‘It is important to inform our families about our decision and to talk to them about it. Then it is more likely that they will honour our will after our death’, says Urszula Jaworska who has created the biggest bone marrow bank.

Transplantation = Christian love

Unfortunately, many families do not agree to take the organs of the relatives when they die a sudden death. They think it will be 'an injury’. We often deal with superstitions that the dead relative will not be saved if he or she goes to heaven in an incomplete form. The teaching of the Church ensures us that we will not need kidneys, livers and even hearts in heaven. Such questions can be compared to the questions children ask in some educational material. In a film directed to pre-school pupils we can see a child whose mother has had a heart transplant. A small child wonders whether his mother with a new heart will love him the same way. Similarly, we can apply it to the faith of the Church. God’s love will not depend on our organs. On the contrary, giving someone a part of our body is part of the essence of Christian love. ‘We should show our faithful how Christ dealt with this problem. He shed his blood for us and gave his body so that we can have eternal life’, says Fr Piotr Sadkiewicz from Lesna near Zywiec, who won the Parish Priest of the Year 2005 contest. He managed to convince almost half of his parishioners to sign the donor information declaration so that their organs could be taken after their death. ‘Therefore, the idea of transplantation belongs to the essence of Christianity’, he stresses. ‘Every blood transfusion into the veins of another person or a transplant of some inner organ will be a ‘sign of supernatural blood circulation that revives the Church of Jesus Christ’, states the letter of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, dated September 2007. The bishops encourage the faithful to give their consent for organ donation after death and they encourage the families of those who died suddenly not to forget in their sorrow and pain that the inner organs of their relatives can rescue someone’s life. Such a decision can make someone else enjoy a new life. Since ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends’, the bishops remind the faithful.

"Niedziela" 47/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: