Organ donation seen from both sides

Heart-transplant recipient Alastair Gilchrist displays a photo of his daughter, Anna Milne, whose...
Heart-transplant recipient Alastair Gilchrist displays a photo of his daughter, Anna Milne, whose recent death resulted in her organs giving life to others. PHOTO: JOHN COSGROVE
The number 39 has poignant significance for Balclutha’s Gilchrist family; father Alastair was that old when he received a heart transplant, and daughter Anna was the same age when her organs changed the lives of many recipients. Mike Houlahan reports.

Anna Gilchrist did not need to be talked into becoming an organ donor.

When she was 12, the family moved to Auckland to support dad Alastair as he became just the 32nd person to undergo a heart transplant procedure in New Zealand.

Having seen first hand the difference organ donation can make, Anna, like 54% of New Zealanders, later noted on her driver's licence that she would be an organ donor.

After becoming Anna Milne and settling down to raise two children, her husband, John, was well aware of her connection and commitment to organ donation.

Noble intentions are one thing, but going through with them is quite another.

An abstract decision became an awful reality last month, when Anna Milne - fit, healthy and just 39 - suffered a series of aneurysms and died in Christchurch Hospital.

Suddenly, John Milne was dealing with paperwork he had never imagined he would have to fill out, while Alastair Gilchrist watched the system which had saved his life in 1992, from the other side of the process.

Mr Gilchrist had no inkling he was unwell until he was 38 and started feeling breathless and listless.

Diagnosed with an enlarged heart, he was confronted with a diagnosis that gave him a year to live unless he had a heart transplant.

Luckily, a donor became available, and life as a farm worker and father was put on hold as the family moved north for life-saving surgery.

Mr Gilchrist (now 66) was told if he got five years' use out of his replacement heart he would be doing well. He and his donated organ are about to rack up their 27th "heart birthday".

"To be told you need a heart transplant just blows your socks off really," Mr Gilchrist said.

"It is hard to think of yourself being that sick, and I never for one minute imagined that.

"The new heart has never missed a beat, which is great ... it's three years younger than I am, and it was obviously a good match because they don't all go that good."

Mr Gilchrist returned to work as a carpenter and is still on the tools to this day.

Having raised his family and seen grandchildren arrive in turn, Mr Gilchrist is a living example of the value of organ donation.

He has spoken about his transplant before to help raise awareness of the scheme, and the bittersweet irony of doing so again in these circumstances does not escape him.

"We have seen it from both sides now. We obviously realised that someone had lost a life in order for me to gain a heart.

"It's heartbreaking from the other side ... and you never imagine you are going to be in that situation yourself."

Mr Gilchrist said his daughter was a happy and healthy child who grew to be a caring woman devoted to her family.

Husband John Milne said his wife's job as a hairdresser meant she knew many people in Balclutha.

"She touched a lot of people's lives and a lot of people around the community loved her. We saw that with the amazing turnout to her funeral."

An active woman who loved the outdoors, Anna was a passionate gardener and was a terrific person to be around, Mr Milne said.

"She was doing fitness classes three times a week, was very fit and enjoyed her life," he said.

"She wasn't one for sitting around, she was always up and doing something, always keeping the kids occupied."

Mr Milne, a donor himself, had had the `what if" conversation with Anna previously and knew she was always going to be an organ donor.

While knowing he was doing what she wanted offered some comfort, it in no way prepared Mr Milne for what followed.

Like all relatives of nominated organ donors, he was asked to confirm Anna would be a donor and confirm what would be donated.

"I had to go through with a doctor and one of the nurses and tick off what parts of Anna were donated," Mr Milne said.

"Anything they wanted, I said they could take ... some people don't like the taking of the eyes, but both Anna and I said we wanted to help someone else, and the eyes can help up to four people."

After agreeing to the donation, a team was sent south to Christchurch, and met Mr Milne before beginning their delicate and difficult work.

"They were very grateful and the respect they showed to Anna was unbelievable," he said.

"It was a six-hour operation and she was treated as if it was me and you being operated on, with anaesthetics and muscle relaxants and things like that - it's not like they take them out the back and help themselves. They really respect the patient that they have."

The following day the Milne family were told Anna's lungs, kidneys and liver had been transplanted, and other tissue was on its way to recipients.

Anna's heart could not be used as no suitable recipient was available then.

Organ Donation New Zealand donation co-ordinator Janice Langlands said families should follow the Milnes' example and have a conversation about donation so everyone's wishes were understood.

"Having the conversation is the most important step ... and we want to make the process respectful for everyone involved."

The number of people helped by organ donation varied depending on the health of the donor, the wishes of the family, the speed with which the transplant team arrived and the availability of recipients and whether they were a suitable match, but generally up to 10 people would benefit.

"We don't ever say that organ donation makes things better or easier in dealing with grief, but sometimes it can provide some comfort for the family knowing that a little bit of good has come out of their tragedy," Ms Langlands said.

"We are grateful to families like this who have done so much to help other people."

Organ donation

• Most people who wish to donate organs cannot. Generally donation can only happen if a person is on a ventilator in an intensive care unit with severe brain
damage, circumstances which match less than 1% of all deaths. 

• In 2017 73 New Zealanders donated organs after death; in 2018 it was 62.

• You can donate your heart, lungs, pancreas, liver and kidneys. Eyes, heart valves, and skin can also be collected and used by others.

• Two brain death assessments are carried out by two different doctors before a family is asked to confirm they wish to proceed with donation.

• If the family agrees, they will be asked what can and cannot be donated and to give written consent.

• A donor co-ordinator from Organ Donation New Zealand checks the donor’s medical history and liaise with the family.

• Organs usually need to be transplanted within hours, although some tissue can be stored for later use.

• Donation does not interfere with funeral arrangements, including an open coffin or having the deceased at home.

• The donor’s family will receive a letter setting out many people were helped by the donation.

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