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Friday, October 23, 1998 Published at 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK


Organ donation: decide now

BBC doctor Colin Thomas: 'Donation saves lives'

Just think for a moment how you would feel if you or your child were waiting for a desperately needed organ transplant.

What would you be hoping? That someone would die? No, of course not.

But you would hope that if an otherwise healthy person had succumbed in a way we know healthy people sometimes do, they would at least have thought about organ donation.

Unfortunately humans, believing they are immortal, tend to put off thinking about this sort of thing, and so don't tend to make their wishes clear and register as a donor.

The last thing a grieving family will want to do is make a decision of that magnitude without knowing what the person concerned would have wanted, and as a consequence many transplantable organs are wasted.

I remember a case where a young man had been fatally injured and very soon died. He didn't have a donor card, and the relatives were not approached for organ donation.

Too late

A few hours later we were approached by the relatives asking if the man's organs could be usefully used.

Unfortunately they could not. Because he hadn't discussed it with his family, and as he didn't carry a card the opportunity was missed, but for all we know he may have wanted his organs to be used to help others after his death.

Quite often the prospect of organ donation can be a helpful, positive step for relatives to take in what is obviously a very negative situation.

Whilst you will have heard recently in the news about experimental surgery for arm transplantation, in practice there are still only relatively few types of organ that are transplanted routinely.

In the USA in 1994 over 18,000 transplants were performed:

  • 10,643 Kidneys
  • 2,340 Hearts
  • 3,652 Livers
  • 70 Heart-Lungs
  • 722 Lungs
  • 96 Pancreas
  • 747 Kidney-Pancreas

That's a lot of lives improved.

But don't forget - you don't have to be dead to be a donor! Giving blood can be just as useful in helping someone live, and bone marrow transplants, where a small amount of bone marrow is taken from the hip bone under anaesthetic, can replace the whole blood producing factory of a diseased body.

Prime Minister's lead

[ image: Tony Blair: leading the way]
Tony Blair: leading the way
I was delighted to see Mr and Mrs Blair taking the lead this week and signing up for their donor cards.

Then my mind started to wander - yes you'd probably be OK with a Prime Ministerial kidney.

But just imagine if you'd been waiting years and years for a face transplant, but the donor card idea suddenly catches on in the cabinet and you end up with the Foreign Secretary's, complete with ginger goatee - not a pretty sight.

I hope the idea doesn't carry through to entertainment or sport or we could end up with Barry Manillow's nose, or Jeremy Paxman's sneer_...Hang on, though, if Linford's lunch box comes up then count me in!

Dr Thomas writes a weekly column for the health section of BBC News Online. He would be delighted to receive suggestions or comments. He can be contacted via e-mail on

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