“If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any. If you have food, share it with someone else.” (Luke 3:11)
A week ago today, I gave away one of my kidneys. It seems very strange writing that now – as if the gift was no more than an extra piece of clothing I didn’t really want or need. But of course a kidney is far more than that – a vital organ, an inherent part of me, potentially a life saver for one of my relatives (should they require one) – so why on earth did I do it?
It all began a little over five years ago when I became aware that the husband of one of my friends at church was in desperate need of a kidney. He had suffered from renal disease for some while and things were getting worse. It was proving hard to find a match for him, and I simply thought why not? I had two kidneys; I only needed one and all we are talking about is a bit of pain to get my one out and in to him. So I signed up to donate.
But things weren’t that straightforward. We didn’t match directly, and for five years we also failed to match via the paired and pooled scheme. (This is where I donate to someone I don’t know on the grounds that their friend donates to my friend – and so in this way everyone gets a kidney!) Eventually, I was told I would never be able to donate via this scheme to help my friend and at that point I had a choice: pull out entirely and keep my kidneys, or donate one of them to a complete stranger (non-directed altruistic donation). I chose the latter option.
The reason for this has a lot to do with how I understand my Christian faith. There’s an understanding of ethical responsibility that says we only really have responsibility for those closest to us – our parents, our children – that our degree of responsibility diminishes rapidly outside that innermost circle. As a follower of Jesus, I find that approach hard to agree with. When Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbours’ – and perhaps especially ‘Love your enemies’ – he was blowing apart any notion that our responsibility was confined to the innermost circle. Instead, he was challenging us to view our ethical responsibility as having no borders.
As I thought about my kidney, it struck me that for me personally I would be betraying one of my most heartfelt principles if I was willing to give it to a friend, but not to a stranger. Either I believed in love without borders – or I didn’t. And on that basis, I chose to give the kidney away to a complete stranger, someone I’ve never met, never heard of and am unlikely to ever know.
So, how was it? Well, as I write this, just six days following the operation, the truth is that it has been a lot harder than I expected. I was prepared for the physical pain and – while of course it hurts – the pain has actually been far less than I expected. I was discharged on just paracetamol after four days and remain on that alone. Emotionally, it has also been fine. All the positive messages from my friends and family have been a real boost. The main problem for me was unanticipated, and it has been my relatively unusual reaction to the drugs, especially the anaesthetic drugs. I have felt and continue (to a much lesser extent) to feel nauseous, dizzy, groggy, weak and tired. I’m struggling to sleep normally and am having weird dreams. Some of this – especially the weakness/tiredness – will be due to having had major surgery, but most of the rest is drug-related. I have no doubt that in time all of this will stop – it has only been a week after all – but this is the aspect that I’ve founded hardest to handle. I wasn’t expecting it. All of my reading and consultation beforehand hadn’t really prepared me for it, and the truth is that it’s been tough.
Does that mean I regret it? Not for a moment. For while I have had to suffer for a week, maybe two, the person who has received my kidney has probably been suffering for years and years – and my donation will have significantly eased that. I have had word that the recipient took it well and is progressing well and for me that is the point. I’ve two friends with significant kidney disease and the constant burden on their lives of dialysis is horrendous. Being able to remedy that by giving away a kidney is one of the greatest privileges I have ever had.
Lots of my friends have posted on facebook lovely messages about the hero that I’ve been – but the truth is that I’m not. Giving away a kidney isn’t being a hero – struggling with depression is, coping with losing a child is, forgiving unconditionally is, and I’ve family and friends who’ve done all these things. But giving away a kidney? It is simply sharing the abundance of what I have with someone who has less. And to be able to do that is nothing short of an immense blessing for me. I may have given away a kidney but in return I have received so much more, and for that I am grateful.
In saying all this, I’m not trying to suggest that kidney donation is the right move for everyone. For all kinds of reasons it won’t be. But it was the right move for me.