DESPITE the immense progress in transplantation during the past 66 years, the UK still faces a significant shortage in kidneys available for transplant. Could an increase in Christian “altruistic” kidney donors be instrumental in closing this gap?
The first ever successful transplant took place in 1954 between identical twins in Boston, in the United States. This ground-breaking operation came to redefine completely the outcomes of people suffering with chronic kidney disease (CKD). Today, kidney transplants are now extraordinarily routine: more than 3000 are conducted every year, from a combination of living and deceased donors.
There is still a severe shortage of kidneys available nationwide, however. The most recent statistics, pre-Covid19, showed that more than 4000 people were waiting for a kidney transplant, while about 250 people died without receiving one.
Since then, coronavirus has played havoc with transplant programmes. At the height of the pandemic, most hospitals suspended living donation entirely. Even before the pandemic, waiting for a kidney was a physical and emotional ordeal. Dialysis sustains many with CKD; the survival rate, however, is between only five and ten years.
In most cases, a kidney transplant is the best treatment option, but simply is not available soon enough. Patients should receive a kidney when they are six months from requiring dialysis; tragically, however, the average wait for a kidney on the kidney waiting list is between two-and-a-half and three years. Even more shocking is the reality that ethnic minorities wait a year longer, and currently comprise 31 per cent of the waiting list. Despite the incredible achievements of modern medicine, simply put, we need more kidneys.
BUT there is a solution. Each year, about 100 people give a kidney to a stranger: this is known as “altruistic” kidney donation. Last year, I joined their ranks and “shared my spare”. It was one of the most amazing experiences in my life, and cost me little apart from time and some discomfort.
The risks for donors are low, quoted at one-in-3000 risk of death, while donors’ long-term health is statistically superior to the average population. On the other hand, my recipient was restored to health and is able once again to play with her grandchildren. Furthermore, by donating to a stranger through the NHS living-donor scheme, I enabled a “kidney donor chain”, whereby my recipient’s partner gave a kidney to a second recipient, in exchange. Not only was this life-saving for the recipients, but it saved the NHS £200,000 per operation.
For me, donating was a working out of my faith. The first organ transplant was not in Boston, in 1954, but took place much earlier: in Ezekiel 36.26, God says: “I will give you a new heart and put a new Spirit in you. I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Through Christ, believers have become recipients of a spiritual transplant, receiving new hearts so that we can better love God, and better love those around us.
Throughout history, Christians filled with the Holy Spirit have stood out for sharing the heart of God, and caring for those who are suffering. Indeed, as I did my research, I discovered that many Christians have already given a kidney to a stranger, such as Kay Mason, who was the first altruistic donor in the UK in 2006, or Dr Justin Thacker, a theologian who was unable to donate to a friend and resolved to give to a stranger instead. Such altruism is unsurprising, considering that we worship a God who offered himself for us at great personal cost while we were strangers, giving us new life
TWO things seem clear to me. First, altruistic donation offers a low-risk and effective solution to the kidney waiting list, if more donors can be recruited. This would require a grass-roots movement that cannot be instituted at a government or policy level.
Second, Christians have a radical perspective on generosity and the part that they play in society. This has led me to launch Faith in Operation, the first concerted effort to raise awareness of altruistic kidney donation in the Church in the UK, which has the power to unleash an explosive generosity movement, save lives, and glorify God.
If only a fraction of one per cent of Christians were willing to give a kidney to a stranger, then we could end the waiting list almost overnight. Church leaders can raise awareness by incorporating our outreach video (found on our website) into their church’s online service, or by posting it on social media.
Although not everyone can give a kidney, all Christians are recipients of God’s heart. I hope and pray that God will stir each one of us to costly acts of generosity for his glory.
Joe Walsh is an elder at Cornerstone Baptist Church and Founder of Faith in Operation.
Organ Donation Week 2020 starts on Monday: organdonation.nhs.uk.
Listen to an interview with Joseph Walsh on the Church Times Podcast