Organ donation is like some strange relay race against death. Dan’s batons—his kidneys, pancreas, liver and heart—were passed onto to four anonymous families, to keep others’ lives going that bit longer, stretching out both Dan’s time and theirs in this world.
Although the recipient takes the organ itself, the whole family benefits. The recipient remains a presence in the lives of their partners, parents, children, siblings. They have meaning in their own and the lives of others, and this continues because have been given a special gift.
One of Dan’s kidney recipients has, over the last three years, been able to see his daughter successfully complete her GCSEs, attend prom, pass more qualifications, land her first proper job. How important is it to simply have your dad there for you during that time? The long-lasting impact of that can’t be calculated yet. But she was able to do what Dan couldn’t, all whilst supported and encouraged by a family that remained intact because of Dan. And that’s a truly special kind of bond. I’m enormously proud of the tenacity of that young woman. The whole family in fact. I’ve met them, and they consider Dan part of their family.
I know that not all donation stories are happy. Rejection rates are high, and even when they are successful there’s endless testing, medication, appointments. It can feel a terrible burden. Especially from a deceased donor. Knowing that it took someone else to die so you might live longer is a deeply peculiar philosophical conundrum to grapple with. I know it can bring terrible guilt, especially when the deceased was young and healthy, like Dan.
One of Dan’s recipients, who I’m also privileged to know, experiences some heart-breaking lows. Especially on days when she feels physically unwell, too tired to move or cope. She describes feeling punished by being kept alive, then wretched because she knows she has Dan’s precious gift and should be grateful for any quality of life.
But neither guilt about the loss of a strapping sporty teen, nor anguish about not feeling grateful enough for the organ received alter this fact: Dan is dead, and this life, today, now, is the best we have, all of us. And it’s ok to have shitty days, or weeks. It’s ok to curse choices made, to wish for a different life, to despair at everything. It will all pass. Alongside the hollow days, there will be moments of joy, of calm, or pleasant contentment. Life is not mostly bells and whistles. Life is time with friends and family.
Dan’s legacy is to offer those recipients and their families more ordinary days. Ups and downs, dull days, and celebrations. Donation is not about seeking gratitude or having great expectations for those that receive the gifts. It’s simply about hope, that someone else gets to have a few more ordinary days in this glorious, messed up, beautiful world.