Letter on "A Change of Heart"

Oregon, October 30, 2001

A recent Sunrise article mentioning organ donation led me to reread Claire Sylvia's memoir, A Change of Heart, which centers on a fascinating aspect of this issue. A dancer and single mother dying in her early 30s, she accepted the heart and lungs of an 18-year-old male killed in a motorcycle accident. After a few months she had a vivid dream where, when she started to leave, a young man named Tim called her back and kissed her. With that kiss she felt he had given her something of himself. This dream made her curious about her donor, but releasing further information was prohibited by law. Gradually she began to experience unexpected urges, choosing unfamiliar food and different colored clothes; sometimes she was impelled to walk at a pace too energetic for her age and gender. Eventually she became so familiar with her donor that she was able, without official help, to trace his family and visit with them. Of course, not every recipient is as sensitive as this author, and many do not notice any foreign influences; but her book relates other recipients' similar stories, tells of the organization founded to address their needs, and offers several possible explanations of these experiences. They should not be too surprising, however, because although the donor is dead, the organs remain vital and are filled with memories. The full implications of this phenomenon have yet to be explored.

Hoping for more insight, I turned to a collection of essays, The Ethics of Organ Transplants, edited by Arthur L. Caplan and Daniel H. Coelho, only to be dismayed. Most of the contributors from medical fields exhibited an almost frenzied focus on finding ways to encourage or coerce more people to become donors. Even now hospital staffs are required to notify a transplant surgeon as soon as a patient dies who has not supplied a written refusal. Then the cover words "assumed consent" are applied, making the body public rather than private property. Some surgeons want to remove the organs of anencephalic neonates (infants born with meager or damaged brains) while they are still alive, saying that such babies are short-lived and, having little or no consciousness, would feel no pain. Only one contributor decried the present plan to breed animals to supply organs suitable for humans. Then there are the abuses when organs are sold for money, whether by living donors or other parties.

Contributors Renee Fox and Judith Swazey, who have become disillusioned after many years' involvement, sum up their discomfort this way:

In the final analysis, our departure from the field in the midst of such events is not only impelled by our need and desire to distance ourselves from them emotionally. It is also a value statement on our part. By our leave-taking we are intentionally separating ourselves from what we believe has become an overly zealous medical and societal commitment to the endless perpetuation of life and to repairing and rebuilding people through organ replacement -- and from the human suffering and the social, cultural, and spiritual harm we believe such unexamined excess can, and already has, brought in its wake. -- p. 339

Ancient and modern religions teach that humans possess immortal spiritual elements that do not perish with the physical body. Reincarnation and karma explain that, like nightly sleep, death is merely an interlude of rest. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt reassured people by saying "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." An apt alteration today would be to assure people that the only thing to fear about death is the fear of death itself. -- Enid Brandon

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