Donated organs 'heirlooms not spare parts'

August 06, 1999

The research report focuses on the experiences of both recipients and donors families. Many recipients who took part were keen to get in touch with their donor's family to thank them for the "gift" and donor families spoke of their dissatisfaction at the lack of information they are given about recipients.

Currently the "gift of life" is mediated by transplant unit personnel who decide on what information is given out to donor families. More crucially they decide whether or not recipients and donor families have any contact. "Some transplant staff actively discourage any contact because of the emotional implications of an organ transplant and because many recipients experience guilt about the donor's death and the family's grief," says Joni Wilson, author of the report. "In an effort to protect recipients, health care professionals control and even deny the reciprocal nature of this gift", she says.

The research found that although recipients wanted very much to write a letter of thanks to their donor's family they were not given the opportunity by transplant unit staff. Donor families had begged for information about recipients only to be denied it. They were left with a feeling of bewilderment and grief. "It is important for the donor family to get a thank you letter acknowledging the 'gift of life'," says Ms Wilson. "They feel a connection to recipients and denying contact can be harmful to both sides," she adds.

Recipients often speak of their transplanted organ as a mechanical object and refer to it as "theirs". Much of their gratitude is directed towards the health care professionals who "saved their life". However the research also shows that recipients are aware of the origin of the "gift", that it came from another human being and that somewhere a family is grieving over his or her death.

"Donor families on the other hand never speak of the organ in this way as a detached object, machine part or otherwise. It is always linked with the name of the donor, a person who had shared their lives, hopes, dreams and disappointments," says Ms Wilson.

The research concludes that there needs to be a serious rethink about how we as a society view this very emotional issue. "Human organs cannot be treated as 'spare parts'-they are not alienable objects. We are clearly dealing here with the 'spirit of a gift' which links the donor, the recipient and the donor's family in a very special relationship," says Ms Wilson.

"Listening to both sides of the story has made me see that perhaps we should be interpreting the gift of life as an heirloom passed on through a family where the original owner is always remembered," she adds.
For further information please contact:
Ms Joni Wilson
Tel: 0131-228-4129


Lesley Lilley or Jacky Clake, ESRC External Relations
Tel: 0179341-3119/413117.

The ESRC is the UK's largest independent funder of research and postgraduate training in social and economic issues. It currently has an annual budget of around £65 million from the Government.

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