‘…unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground, it still remains but a grain of wheat; but if it falls and dies, then it bears much fruit…’
The Gospel on Sunday, 22nd March 2016, was perfectly suitable to invite the parishioners of St. Blaise to make a unique contribution — of themselves — to others, in the form of pledging their organs for donation after their death.
Jesus gave his life — his body and blood — to give new life (salvation) to us. This beautiful metaphor coincides with the idea of organ donation – an act of charity of an unmatched degree. Death, often looked at as an end, can now be the beginning of a new life for another person.
We view donations, and giving to others as something that will cost us too. Either in terms of time, money, sweat, and toil. But how would you feel if you could give the greatest gift – the gift of life – at no cost to yourself?
The Catholic Church considers Organ Donation as a ‘genuine act of love’. Innumerable people all over our country suffer from a variety of conditions, both genetic and acquired, where the best treatment of choice would be the transplant of human tissue. Medical advances may have managed to create few artificial tissues but yet, we depend on the generosity of other people for something as basic as blood.
What is the price of a human heart? Can you put a price on a kidney? Ask a person with Alport Syndrome, who develops kidney failure due to mutated genes. From a healthy life he is suddenly dependent on a machine that filters his blood, for 3 hours, 3 times a week. Come winter or summer, he is permitted to consume only half a litre of fluids all day (including tea, soups, water), eating food that is leached of sodium and potassium, devoid of its original flavour. Many of my patients thought it was better to die than to live a life like this…and sometimes, one may wonder whether the anticipation of death is what a young, 35 year old patient must speak of.
For another person who needs a replacement of the valve of a heart, s/he may worry about the cost, for artificial valves cost upwards of Rs.20,000, apart from the cost of the surgery. And what about that otherwise healthy person who has so much to offer the world – but is hampered by the lack of sight? What a gift to him/her, for a child born with corneal deformity, to see the world in all its colours, for the first time in their lives! Biliary atresis, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, intestinal ulcers, cancer, burns, bone deformities…the list goes on…and a brain dead person can help nearly 52 other people who have no other hope for survival or treatment! A person who dies of cardiac failure can still help about half that number. In India, 2,00,000 people need a new kidney and 1,00,000 need a new liver every year. It is only the lack of awareness that has made donor organs so scarce, shortening the lives of so many who could otherwise live an unblemished, productive life.
Jesus calls us to have love and compassion for others. ‘For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? …even the tax collectors do the same!’ (Mt 5:46). Thus, organ donation is a selfless gift of love. ‘Truly I say to you, whatever you do for the least of my brothers/sisters, that you do unto Me’ (Mt. 25:40), and St. Paul adds to it saying, ‘Therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s’ (1 Cor: 6:20).
The value of an organ donor is not just appreciated by the Church, but also doctors, law makers, the police and of course, the recipient. A recent incident in South India showed how the traffic police, hospital authorities, ambulance drivers, families, the ZTCC and even airport authorities worked together to clear traffic on streets and ensure that a heart donated by one family after the death of their loved one, was harvested and taken to a waiting aircraft in 12 minutes flat to be transplanted in a recipient in another city. No money exchanged hands in this process. Doctors, feeling helpless about the state of a patient who needs an organ, know what a fresh lease of life it brings to the recipient; for the families, it is like having their child back from the jaws of death!
The Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1994, is one of the few that are designed so perfectly, outlining the process of organ donation simple, yet guarded under the watchful eyes of the ZTCC, police personnel, NGOs involved, family members, and hospital authorities to ensure all usable organs and tissue are recorded and safely transported for use. Potential donors are certified dead by TWO other doctors who were not originally treating the patient. Premature unplugging from the life-support system is impossible, as that would only result in the doctors being tried for murder – and no doctor wishes that! The Hippocrates oath of ‘do no harm’ still holds firm, and in case of a person who has pledged their organs, the ZTCC and NGOs keep a watchful eye on the whole process. Only when a patient is determined to be irreversibly and completely brain dead is s/he considered a candidate for organ donation. The harvesting (removal) of organs is also carried out respecting the wishes of the donor and their family members, and ensuring the body doesn’t appear mutilated at the funeral.
The Cathechism of the Catholic Church 2296 states:
‘Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.’
Many Christians are concerned that the human body must be preserved in its entirety for the resurrection. This makes many people reluctant to pledge their organs for donation. ‘If we believe that the bodies raised at the resurrection represent simply a “reoccupation” of our earthly bodies, then we possess a false concept of our resurrection as presented in the Bible. We are told that the earthly body, “that of flesh and blood,” will not enter into the heavenly inheritance (1 Cor 15:50).’ (Howard, 1998)
If having the body whole at burial was a criteria for complete resurrection, how does that explain the resurrection of persons blown apart in bomb blasts? Those who lose their limbs in accidents or at war? Is our God so selfish as to refuse resurrection to those who have used their body to help others? The Catholic Church has obviously considered the teachings about resurrection before considering organ donation a gift of life. On the last day, we will have a new body, one that is not destructible. But the present flesh that covers us today, will return to dust, as it came from it. The belief that the same body that is buried will be the one that rises is childish and shows the lack of faith in God’s benevolence and God’s ability as Creator.
Dr. Carroll Simcox in his article entitled The Case of the Missing Liver suggests a proper understanding of 1Cor 15:35-49, explaining the difference between the physical body that dies on earth and the spiritual body of the resurrection. ‘If the resurrection of our bodies means simply the reoccupation of the previous body, then the entire doctrine of resurrection presented in the Bible is erroneous.’
Most people are horrified at the thought – many have ideas that are influenced more by Auschwitz or of Indian horror films when it comes to organ donation. Bodies of organ donors are always stuffed with organic material (or glass balls in case of eye donation) to ensure that the body doesn’t appear sunken or malformed at the funeral.
The parable of the Good Samaritan exemplifies how each person is our neighbour and we should be willing to help them and meet their needs, when it is within our power. ‘If we humbly use technology in a way that glorifies God, with an understanding that God is in ultimate control, then the act is be considered a moral act…If an act of love exemplifies Christlikeness, then it is permissible, but if the motive is giving in order to gain benefit, then the act is not justified.’ (Howard)
Fr. Franklyn from St. Blaise parish, thus invited the Green Madcaps to spread awareness about Organ Donation to the parish. Speaking at every Mass on the topic, Suren Abreu, a Microbiologist, along with Rachael Alphonso, a Dietician, presented the above ideas to parishioners while their team members and Sunday School Catechists – Swetha, Jiona, Tania, Vanessa, and Dimple, supported by Shatayu, an NGO that promotes Organ Donation, helped people pledge themselves as organ donors. The team of priests including Franklyn, Hubert, led the parishioners by their own example, signing up as organ donors themselves, while also including the whole concept of Organ Donation and the Selfless Gift of Love in the liturgy. As a result, 139 people signed up the same day, and about 400 people have taken home the forms to be filled in and returned later.
A shy girl wearing a mask approached us, in tears, visibly moved by the whole programme. She, having suffered from chronic kidney disease is now living a happy life after receiving a kidney from a cadaver donor. She knew how much it meant – what it was to have nearly lost hope and suddenly being gifted her life back by the generosity of someone who she never knew.
She was among the first few to pledge her organs. She wants to give life to others, just as somebody chose to give it to her.
In this context, the words ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ has an altogether new and a rather compassionate meaning.
The Green Madcaps, Sahar
(About the Author: Rachael Alphonso worked in KEM Hospital, Mumbai, as a Dietician. Her work with patients of chronic kidney disease and renal failure and experience coming face-to-face with patients whose lives were changed thanks to a kidney transplant strengthened her resolve to promote organ donation and remove all myths about it in India. In this regard, she has discussed the issue with many experts – doctors, law enforcers activists, families of donors, transplant recipients and experts in medical ethics.)
Howard, BA. 1998. What the Bible Says about Organ Transplants.
Journal of Christian Nursing 15 (4): 26–32
Simcox, CE. 1986. The Case of the Missing Liver. Retrieved from http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1000. Retrieved on 28th March, 2015.
The Bible! I don’t know how to write a reference for it! I used the NRSV version.