If a miracle becomes commonplace, is it still a miracle?
Each day, 79 people receive organ transplants. Yet unless the recipient happens to be, say, a former vice president, the story doesn’t make the headlines. It doesn’t even make the back pages.
Still, it is a miracle to the recipient and to those who love him or her. When someone has been waiting for months under a sentence of death because of failing kidneys, or heart, or lungs, the sudden appearance of a match — the right tissue type, at the right time, in the right place — seems like a miracle. Life is possible again.
In the past, the success of organ transplantation was limited by technology. Keeping matched organs viable until surgery, incidents of infection and subsequent rejection of transplanted organs all presented significant obstacles. But in recent years, incredible advances have been made. It is not unusual for a heart transplant recipient to live a productive life for 10 years or more.
These days the chief limitation on transplantation is availability of organs. In the United States, 18 people die each day on the waiting list. If more people registered to be donors, more lives could be saved.
Why don’t more people sign up to be organ donors? The reasons are many, but they come down to two factors: ignorance and reluctance.
Many people falsely believe they are registered as an organ donor even though they are not. Simply signing up at the DMV and receiving a driver’s license with the little orange “donor” circle is not sufficient. One must also sign up with the state organ donation registry.
In Wisconsin and Minnesota, that’s a simple matter of going to www.donatelifemidwest.org and filling out the online form. It takes about three minutes.
It is also important to talk to one’s family about one’s intention to be a donor so that in the event of an unexpected death, one’s family does not have the burden of making a difficult decision about something they haven’t already considered.
But the chief obstacle to registering is probably a reluctance on the part of potential donors to fully imagine their own death and to make practical decisions about what to do when that time comes.
If I register as an organ donor, I am agreeing to give up the part of me I most closely identify with: my body. And that’s vastly different from agreeing to give up my possessions. To agree to be an organ donor is to acknowledge the inevitability and finality of one’s death.
And yet, that is one of the most significant things about it. Everybody finds it hard to acknowledge that when it comes to that which we value most — life itself — we have no ultimate control. But that is a fact, and it’s important to face it and discuss it with those we love.
The act of registering to be an organ donor — the decision to give one’s body to save another’s life — means acknowledging a good that persists beyond my personal interest. It is, in the end, an act of hope, because genuine hope only comes when we give up our individual concerns and commit ourselves, body and soul, to the good of others. In this way, hope is grounded in love.
Organ donation advocates often wish to impress upon potential donors the very great need that exists and also the immense gratitude that recipients feel. Yet, to my mind, an even greater motivation extends from the simple fact that the gifts are already in place — that if I or one of my loved ones were to sustain a significant injury to a vital organ, strangers have already said, in effect, “Here, take. This is my body; I give it to you.”
Such generosity is breathtaking. How can I not be willing to do the same?
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.