Organ donation the gift of life

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An Alexandra woman is encouraging people to consider being an organ donor after a person she never met saved her life. Yvonne O’Hara tells a local story that is part of a national campaign.

Karyn Steel, of Alexandra, has a scar the shape of a Mercedes Benz emblem on her stomach because somebody saved her life, and she will never know who it was.

She received a liver from an unidentified donor last year, and now she is encouraging people to tick the box on their driver’s licence in case they can save someone else’s life.

The Ministry of Health recently released a document called “Increasing Deceased Organ Donation and Transplantation: Towards a National Strategy” to encourage more people to consider organ donation.

The ministry wants to increase the number of successful donations, while being respectful of the wishes of potential donors and their families.

It also covers improving public awareness, ensuring all transplant processes are carried out to the highest standards, improving New Zealand’s system for registering and sharing donation intent and establishing a national agency to lead the strategy implementation.

Mrs Steel was told about 20 years ago she had a genetic condition – Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency – that would cause liver disease.

“I put it to the back of my mind and got on with my life,” Mrs Steel said.

By 2015, her liver started to fail and as her condition worsened, she attended Dunstan Hospital every three weeks over two years, to have about three litres of fluid drained from her body.

She also developed diabetes.

“I had no idea I was as sick as I was,” she said.

After tests to find out if she was a suitable organ recipient, she was put on a waiting list in early 2016.

A factor in her favour was the support from her sisters and daughters, who took it in turns to look after her throughout the 10 weeks of surgery and recovery, and when she arrived back in Alexandra.

Daughter Rebecca offered her half her liver, but when she was tested, doctors found Rebecca’s liver was too small.

“It was the best news for me, as I did not want her to go through that,” Mrs Steel said.

“For her to want to give it to me was a wonderful gesture.

“She said to me: ‘I had lost my father [who had died a few years previously], so I was damned sure I was not going to lose my mother’.”

During a week in Dunedin Hospital last year, she received the call a liver was available and she was flown to Auckland that night and had the operation the next morning.

She was grateful to the staff of Dunstan, Dunedin and Auckland hospitals, and had received “amazing” care from them, she said.

She takes three anti-rejection pills a day, feels well and has no side effects, although she has had to change her diet.

Although she was never told anything about the donor, she is keenly aware of the cost to the family. Mrs Steel wrote to the family, care of a third party, expressing gratitude. She expected and got no response.

“I am so grateful to be alive,” Mrs Steel said.

A ministry spokesman said the next step for the strategy was establishing the national agency.

“We’re working through the options in detail at the moment.

“In the meantime, the ministry has provided up to $500,000 funding to increase hospital-based capability to manage donation opportunities.”