Living kidney donors: 'It seemed like the most useful thing I could do'

More and more Britons are choosing to face surgery to offer a stranger a brighter future. Simon Usborne finds out what drives these altruistic kidney donors

Tom did it when he imagined himself in the position of the stranger whose life he was about to save. Clare did it to celebrate her recovery from illness by giving something back. Chris did it as an expression of faith in a society he believes is full of good people. Three people with one thing in common: they have all donated a kidney to a stranger. Would you?

Of the 3,000 kidney transplants performed in the year to last April, a few more than 1,000 organs came from living donors, typically the relatives of the recipients. Only 76 of these were strangers who had volunteered to make altruistic, or “non-directed” donations. Very few will know what became of their kidneys.

Give A Kidney, the only charity in this field, is this week celebrating the 250th altruistic donation performed since the practice became legal in 2006, while also launching a campaign for new donors. The need is urgent; of the 6,000 people in Britain waiting for a kidney, the charity says 300 can expect to die this year - almost one every day.

“Chris” is Dr Chris Burns-Cox, the charity’s chairman. He co-founded it in 2011 after donating his own kidney to a stranger a year earlier. “It seemed to me that you could convert somebody’s life form major misery and early death to normal again,” the retired physician, who is 76, says. “It seemed like the most useful thing I could do.”

Would-be donors undergo months of physical and psychological checks, and come from a range of backgrounds. “We had a woman from Manchester who was 84,” Dr Burns-Cox says. “Of course you wouldn’t put her kidney in a man of 20 but for someone in their 60s that’s another 20 years or more of life.”

Tom Cledwyn was 26 when he gave up his kidney. “I wouldn’t think twice if someone I knew or loved needed one,” the Londoner says two years later. “And as soon as I imagined that my recipient also had a family and friends, it felt irrelevant to me that I wasn’t one of them.”

Strict laws have governed anonymous donation since 1989 after it emerged that foreign kidneys were being traded in Britain. Donors then had to prove they were related to recipients. A handful of altruistic offers were rejected. After the Alder Hey organs scandal, the Human Tissue Act, which came into force in 2006, tightened laws further. But, in response to demand, altruistic donations became legal.

Authorities expected only a few anonymous donations each year, but Dr Burns-Cox was confident more would follow his example. “I’ve always known there is a lot of altruism about if only it could be harnessed,” he says. “I’m also very keen on the idea of counteracting the attitude that wealth is everything. This is a healthy thing for society.”

The biggest hole surgeons make in donors is kidney-sized, and leaves a three-inch abdominal scar after three hours of keyhole surgery. “It only took me about a month to recover,” Cledwyn says. “It’s not too dissimilar to having an appendix out.” The risk is real but low - “about the same as crossing the road after a pint of beer,” Dr Burns-Cox adds.

Clare Bolitho gave a kidney in 2011 and is unusual among anonymous donors because she knows what happened to her organ (this can only happen when both parties waive their right to anonymity). She suffered from alcoholism and anorexia as a young woman and saw her gift as a statement of good health after two decades without drink - and a chance to give back to the NHS.

“I’ve never had kids and I just thought it would be nice to do something for someone else for a change,” Bolitho, who’s 63,” says. “I’d lead a very selfish life and this was something I could give, without strings, knowing it was going directly to someone who really needs it. I also got a bloody good medical out of it, which was a bonus.”

The vet from the West Midlands has now formed a close bond with Marion, who wrote to her months after receiving her kidney. They met on the first anniversary of the operation. “She’s got so much more of a life than she had, and doesn’t have to spend hours on dialysis,” Bolitho says. “We talk on the phone and I send my kidney a card on each anniversary.”

Cledwyn is prepared never to meet his recipient - but says it doesn’t matter. “It’s really nice to be able to do something while relying on the intent rather than seeing the results,” he explains. “It’s a bit like recycling. You recycle your plastic not so you can see the world change but so that you know you’re playing a part in helping it survive.”

Like many donors, Cledwyn sees these vital gifts as far from selfless. “The word altruistic is completely misplaced,” he says. “On the one hand it’s important not to expect too much but the truth is that if you decide to do something that potentially gives someone an extra 30 years, then you’re going to come out of it feeling good about yourself.”

To find out more about altruistic kidney donation, visit giveakidney.org

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