Giving the greatest gift of all

It Could be you. It could have been you. Except that, if it had been you, you wouldn't have known about it.

I don't know about it either. All I know is that an old friend has just been miraculously, and, God willing, lastingly restored to life from near- death by a clever surgeon called Heaton - a man my own age, but with something in his eyes which you cannot see in mine - at an over-stretched NHS hospital in slightly run-down part of south London, which nevertheless manages to be one of the world's great centres of excellence.

Somebody died. I don't know who they were or how they died, but I do know that in one of the few entirely selfless acts of generosity available to us (since none of us will be around to see the relief and gratitude of our beneficiaries) this person donated his body into the control of Mr Heaton and his colleagues. They removed his (or maybe her; I don't know) liver and, with eight hours of meticulous, painstaking and physically gruelling work, gave it to my old friend. He can breathe properly now.

His belly is no longer swollen. His skin is pink, not gamboge yellow. He can eat. He can live.

Another friend worked there once, in the Liver Failure Unit. Exhilarating work, he said, because the science of it all was coming on in great leaps. People who would have died, now lived. But there were awful things, too. The worst, he said, were the young women. Trouble with the boyfriend, usually. They reached for the paracetamol, took an over- dose: not much, 10 grammes or so, enough to show they were serious but not enough to die. They didn't want to die, he said. They wanted to be loved. Parasuicide.

So they would be brought in, unconscious, yellow, dying. David and his colleagues would bring them round. The parents would be there; the boyfriend too, usually. The girl would be sitting up in bed, tearful, so sorry, she didn't mean, never really wanted to, thank God she had survived and she would never ever do it again. Ever.

That was the bad part. Because someone had to explain that she had perhaps 24 hours to live. They had brought her round but the damage done to her liver by the paracetamol was catastrophic and irreversible. It was all over. Dead Man Walking; Dead Girl Weeping.

"You'd get hardened to it, though," I said.

"Not to them," he said. "They're so ... "

We looked at each other, ashamed of ourselves for feeling that the death of a young, pretty, sad, hopeful girl should be somehow so much worse than that of an old man, somebody ugly, a dullard. But it wasn't a thought. It was an instinct, something ageless and reptilian and we knew in our bones it was true.

But there's nothing in our bones to tell us how to feel about donors. I have seen them. They lie there, warm, in the institutionalised compassion of the intensive care unit, washed up there like wrack on a catastrophic tide: a subarachnoid haemorrhage, perhaps, or the screech of brakes too late on a wet road, and now there's only the soft grief of the family, the brisk kindnesses of the ITU nurse, the hussssh-click of the respirator, water running and the faint bitter smell of hibitane hand-wash as someone enters the ward. Murmuring voices at the nurses' station, a grumbling registrar, eyes like bruises in his fatigue-grey face. Occasionally an alarm goes off but it's not like the films; it's silenced immediately, and the cause attended to. The family waits. Soon Mr Heaton will come in with the team and take him (or her) away, but if they come now it will be too late, and if they never come it will still be too soon. The person they loved is still here but has already gone; the end has already come, and now they wait for it to come again.

And the other family, the other friends, waiting with the dying one who will receive the donor's last gift. They don't want to know, don't want to think about it, have fallen into the old theological conundrum of warfare: can I pray for the bomb not to fall on me, knowing that means it will fall on someone else? The only comfort is that the sacrifice wasn't voluntary; he made his (or her) testament in the hope that it would never be executed, never believing that it would happen, not to him, not to her. We have no ability to imagine things turning out so desperately badly, for the good reason that our very existence proves that, up to now, things have always turned out okay.

I remember sitting in the Groucho Club talking to Jeffrey Bernard one evening. He said he had just been in hospital next to a man who had had a heart transplant. Fretting about the philosophical implications, unable to sleep, Mr Bernard wandered down to the porters' cubby-hole for a fag and a cup of tea. "I wonder what it must be like," he mused, "waking up with someone else's organ throbbing away inside your body." "Easy, Jeff," said the porter; "just ask any woman."

That way, sanity lies: just be philosophical and don't think about it. My friend has already banished it from his mind. He just says to himself: I feel much better; I hope it lasts. But for the rest of us, it's more difficult. What sort of life had to end before my friend could start to live again? Was the donor a man? A woman? How old? What did they do? Did they like croissants for breakfast, enjoy making love, see their life as a failure, hope for the future, wish for an end? Did they polish the car on the day it killed them? Did it hurt, at the end? Had they ever written a book, planted a tree, wept over a Brahms symphony, had a religious vision, eaten snails, held a newborn baby, licked their lover all over, stolen money, owned a kangaroo-hide stock-whip, had their pocket picked, sung in public, declared all the love they had to declare? And what duty do we owe them, to carry on the imagined life they may have lived?

All we know is that, whatever else they did, they saved a life. So perhaps all my friend's duty is therefore to live that life. Perhaps that's true for all of us. You don't have to have a transplant for that to make sense. !

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea