Organ donation: the gift of life

Posted on 17 March 2016

An organ transplant is a major, life-saving procedure – but although there are 4 300 South Africans on the waiting list, a lack of donors means that these procedures are relatively rare. Here’s what an organ donation means to the recipient, in the words of heart transplant recipient and World Transplant Games athlete Stanley Henkeman.

‘I was 48 years old when I received my new heart on 13 February 2007. Initially there was a degree of uncertainty: “Will it work?” So as a recipient you’re overcautious. Some people continue to be like that, but I reached a stage where I said: “I can sit in the corner and protect this new heart, or I can live a full life, without taking undue risks or being irresponsible.” Making that decision brought a sense of balance into my life.

‘There are things I don’t compromise on. I don’t compromise on compliance with my medical requirements. I go for my biopsies. I take my medication. I exercise. Those are the fundamentals, and I try to do them properly. But on the other hand I hold down a full-time job, I’m involved with the South African Transplant Sport Association, I’m a participant in the World Transplant Sport Association, and I live a very balanced life. For me, that was the key.

‘It’s natural to be cautious. Being given this gift, the concept of a gift of life, of a second chance, is so strong. You want to guard it and protect it. My experience has been that the people who are in the Transplant Sport Association, and participate in the Games, are generally healthier and their outlook on life is more positive. When you go to the World Transplant Games, you get to meet thousands of other people who have been through a similar experience; and that can only be positive for you.

‘I love the community of organ recipients. When I’m with them, suddenly I’m not a freak any more. Sometimes when people meet you and they find out that you’ve received a heart transplant, there’s a reaction: The shock! The horror! And you feel like a freak. But in the company of other people in the same position, you can act normally. You don’t have to explain anything to them. That helps a lot.

‘At the start it is difficult. I can only speak as someone who’s had a heart transplant, but those first few days after the operation are really difficult. You have to process these emotions: on the one hand there’s joy, elation, gratitude; on the other hand there’s this realisation: “Gosh, somebody died. I’m alive, but it’s because somebody else died.”

‘I was fortunate. I found a point early after my transplant where I accepted this heart as a gift from the donor. I wrote to his parents, via the transplant co-ordinator’s office, and told them that everything that I do, and the work that I do in the community, to benefit the community and the country, I will do it in his honour as well. That is an important perspective.

‘I only know that the donor was a 20-year-old male from Port Elizabeth who was declared brain dead after a motor vehicle accident. I know nothing else about him.’

To register as an organ donor, go to the Organ Donor Foundation’s website at www.odf.org.za

Published in Cardiology

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