Register as an organ donor and save lives

Samantha Nicholls, executive director of the Organ Donor Foundation, speaking at a press conference in Cape Town last week.

It is crucial for Cape Town residents to register as organ donors as there is a vital need for these life-saving “gifts”.

Samantha Nicholls, the executive director of the foundation, said their role was to raise awareness around the need for people to register as organ donors.

“We work very closely with patients and the doctors because our work goes hand in hand.”

Ms Nicholls added that there were about 300 volunteers throughout the country and highlighted two factors which were negatively impacting their work.

Doctors, she said, were no longer referring people to the foundation, and often families did not give consent because they did not know that their loved ones are registered as organ donors.

“People might have heard about organ donations somewhere. We’ve seen it in a movie but we don’t know enough to make an informed decision. There are fears and misconceptions that people have around the subject. That’s another big challenge we have.”

At the end of last year the organisation started the Uluntu project which has several volunteers in different communities visiting schools and clinics to raise awareness about organ donation.

“We know we need to do it on a much bigger scale. In South Africa we probably only have 0.3% of the population registered as organ donors. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

She said they would be focusing on peer-to-peer education but that was expensive for a non-governmental organisation. “One organ donor can potentially save the lives of seven people.”

For example, she said, one adult liver could help two children. Significantly, the day the foundation spoke to the media – November 8 – marked the birthday of Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital 50 years ago.

One of the beneficiaries of this medical legacy was heart recipient Professor Evance Kalula, who works at the University of Cape Town. Now he spends some of his time volunteering for the Organ Donor Foundation. He had his heart transplant on December 19 2012.

“I had heart failure, I collapsed on December 12. Luckily within a week a donor was found. I had a stroke in 2002 but I had recovered fairly well from it in ten years.”

He said raising awareness of the importance of organ donors was very important.

“It is a message of faith and of affirmation. I’m lucky to be alive. That generous family, at a dramatic time, allowed the heart of their loved one to be passed on to me. That is a gift that is invaluable, you can’t put a price on it.”

He said some of the fears and misconceptions about registering as an organ donor came from traditional and cultural beliefs. “I believe that my ancestors would applaud and approve somebody who is good enough to let another human being live. My message to all people out there regardless of religious beliefs or tradition is that being a donor is helping somebody else. It’s central to our common humanity and the higher being I think would approve.”

For more information on the Organ Donor Foundation, contact them on the toll free line on 0800 22 66 11 or visit their website at www.odf.org.za