The identity of the donor of my second heart (and his or her family) remains anonymous in terms of South African heart transplant protocols. The donor family, also, knows little – if anything at all – of my identity.
As 2016 changed into 2017, I wrote a letter to my donor’s family. I’d grappled with it long enough, struggling with what I wanted to say.
I started by sharing my story of being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (weak heart muscle) in 2007, continuing my journey through to August when heart failure was diagnosed and I was referred to the heart transplant unit at CBM hospital in Cape Town.
“If it was left to me alone, I would probably not have proceeded with a transplant… My family felt strongly that the decision wasn’t mine alone to make – they wanted me to live. And, in retrospect, I realise that I, too, wanted to live, and want to continue living as meaningfully and fruitfully as I can.”
I shared about the gratitude my family and I felt for their and their relative’s sacrifice that the donor heart was given for me to live.
“We have been very alert to the fact that if I was to be given a new lease on life, someone else would have to give up their life. I say this not to promote a religious view but as a simple matter of fact about my life – I grew up in the Christian faith. The idea of someone giving their life for another is a fundamental aspect of that faith.”
In his biography One Life, Prof Chris Barnard, who performed the first human-to-human heart transplant on December 3, 1967, quotes the words of Horatius in Lord Macaulay’s poem:
“’How can man die better, than facing fearful odds? Well, there was a better way, there was a gesture worth of so great an exit. You could give part of yourself to hold someone in life.
“Christ on the Cross would have done it, too. If there had been a possib ility of doing a transplant, of using one of his organs, he would have given it immediately. He had given his whole life for mankind. So he would have given part of it for part of mankind. He worried about the criminals next to him, about their suffering and death. If he could have given his heart and kidneys to either of them, he would have done that too.”
In my letter to my donor’s family, I said that offering one’s life or a part of one’s life for another to live was not a peculiarly Christian concept.
“Sacrifice for another lies at the heart of all faiths in the world – it is part of our very humanity, even those of us who do not have a belief in a higher power.”
Barnard shared a similar view.
“Christ was not alone. All men wanted to give. [Donor Denise Darvall’s] father had given away her heart. She would probably have done it also, and I wanted to give the world an operation which would save many lives. These were not heroic acts, nor even singularly Christian ones. They were part of the natural instinct of man.”
And, in a less male-dominated era, we will say woman too.
I am aware how easy it is to respond poorly to sacrifices made for one. In fact, it is possible not to respond at all, but to continue as if life is just the same as it always has been for you. It’s easy not to be mindful of the effect of the sacrifice on the one making the sacrifice as well as the beneficial impact of another’s sacrifice on your life.
“The biggest challenge for me is knowing what my life must be like in this new season that I have been given… how do I serve others, sacrifice myself for loved ones, but also for strangers whom I may never meet, like yourselves [my donor’s family]? What do I do with this new life, not just for myself or to benefit my family, but to impact my world?”
At the time that Denise Darvall’s heart was donated to the first human heart transplant recipient Louis Washkansky, on December 3, 1967, newspapers reported the donation was “for the sake of humanity”. I have no delusions of grandeur.
“I am a very ordinary person, no history maker. But you have given me the gift of life. I shall be forever grateful to you, forever humbled by what you have done, forever committed to honouring your family’s gift.”
But it cannot simply be a matter of carrying on life as before. There has to be commitment and on-going recommitment, to constant renewal of my life purpose.
During this Easter celebration of the ultimate sacrificial gift, I commit to using my gift of a new heart, my gift of life, to help others to understand heart disease and how it might be treated. I will use my best endeavours to make it possible for poor people, especially poor rural people in the Eastern Cape, to receive the healing and life-giving treatment I have received.
I will live in ways that honour life, the humanity of others and the life sacrifices they make.