Kay Mason: How one woman's selfless gesture went on to save 100 people at death's door

Yesterday was a landmark for altruistic kidney donation in Britain. Jeremy Laurance on the woman who started it all

Five years ago, Kay Mason, now 68, made medical history by becoming the first person in Britain to give a kidney to a stranger. Yesterday, the legal and social revolution that she triggered was marked by the announcement of the 100th altruistic living kidney donation in the UK.

Johan Stegers, 49, an electrician from Sussex, donated the organ at the Royal Free Hospital in London on 10 April. He does not know who it went to but said he was glad to help if he could. "Most people have got some decency in them, apart from judges and lawyers," he said.

The milestone shows how far attitudes have changed since reluctant blood donor Tony Hancock's protest – "Why, that's very nearly an armful" – on being asked for a whole pint in the 1960s sitcom.

The oldest altruistic donor is Nicholas Crace, 83, a retired charity director from Hampshire, and the youngest is Luc Delauzun, 26, a marketing executive in London.

The four donors came together yesterday at an event organised by the charity Give a Kidney – One's Enough, which seeks to raise awareness of altruistic donation.

If the public have overcome their squeamishness about blood donation, they are not so ready to give away bits of their bodies – even after death. There are 7,000 people on the waiting list for a transplant, and 300 die each year before an organ becomes available. If 1 per cent of those who said they would be prepared to donate a kidney to a stranger did so, the waiting list would be wiped out more than four times over.

Yet Kay Mason, a retired palliative care nurse with four grown-up children, had to struggle to do what, for her, was simply the decent thing. Speaking for the first time about her experience yesterday, she said: "If you saw a person drowning you would try to save them, wouldn't you? And you would put your life at far more risk than I did by giving a kidney. It didn't seem such a big thing."

That was not the view taken by the Department of Health. When Ms Mason wrote to them in 2002 to ask if she could become an altruistic donor, they said no. "I wrote three letters and gave up. I was afraid I would be seen as a crank," she said.

She had sown a seed, however, which bore fruit three years later when the Human Tissue Authority announced a consultation on altruistic donation to which she contributed. When the law changed in 2006 she contacted the Royal Free Hospital and became the first altruistic donor in July 2007.

There was nothing new about her being a living donor – they have accounted for a growing proportion of organs for transplant in recent deades as the surgery has become safer. What was new was that a living donor had never before given an organ to someone who was neither a friend nor a family member.

The idea was so strange that altruistic donors were compelled, unlike other living donors, to undergo a psychiatric assessment.

"I was pretty indignant about that at the time. They seemed to be saying that we had no reason to give, so we must be mad, " Ms Mason said.

The legal requirement for a psychiatric assessment has since been removed, but it is still regarded by transplant experts as good practice.

Lisa Burnapp, lead nurse on living donation at NHS Blood and Transplant, said: "Half of those who contact us about altruistic donation don't go forward with it, and of those who are assessed three-quarters are rejected. We need to ensure people are coming forward for the right reasons and that we don't inflict harm on them – physical or psychological."

Giving generously: Donors' stories

Luc Delauzun, 25: Youngest altruistic donor

Marketing executive, London

My decision was simple: I looked at the statistics. How is it that in a developed country such as the UK people are dying for want of a kidney when there are so many healthy people like me able to give? It took 18 months of assessments. My parents said it was a great thing to do – perhaps when I was older. I thought it better while I was younger, and had the flexibility to take time off at work. I don't have a family yet so there were fewer people to consider.

Johan Stegers, 49: 100th altruistic donor

Electrician, Sussex

A transplant saved the life of my cousin – she had leukaemia – and transplants transformed the lives of two friends. That put the idea of donating a kidney in my mind. I though I was getting past it at 49 but, if you can help someone, it's worth considering. I am single so I can afford to take risks. If someone has a family it could be a big ask for them to donate to a complete stranger. Once I had the operation, I was out of hospital in three days. It is not a walk in the park but it is not too bad. The worst thing was sneezing when you have a big scar across your tummy.

Nicholas Crace, 83: Oldest altruistic donor

Former charity director, Hampshire

Giving a small part of me to someone else will make little difference to my life but a huge difference to someone else's. I have given blood 57 times and have been paid many compliments but the real heroes are those with failing kidneys, and their families. They put up with a miserable life quietly and without grumbling.

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