It’s almost seven years since the Kidney Magicians at Westmead Hospital in Sydney took one of my kidneys and transplanted it into my beloved Deano, a plump little bean-shaped bloom. The morning after the deed was done, I was able to shuffle into his room and even through the blear of pain killers I could see the light had returned to his eyes in a way that made their bright-blueness startle me. I hadn’t been so awestruck since I met my babies for the first time.

Life – here it was. Real life, after more than a year of trudging off to dialysis three times a week for him, and a year of nerve-wracked testing for me. We weren’t a perfect match, as it turned out, but we were able to have what’s called an ABO incompatible transplant, which meant he needed some high-tech blood therapy before the operation, so that his body wouldn’t reject that little bit of mine.

It was all endlessly terrifying. It was all an act of faith and love and surrender and saving up for that six-week rainy day it was going to cost us in wages. But it was hardly altruistic. At the bottom of it, I didn’t want to lose my husband.

And I never stop being grateful that I have him to hold and hold me back today. I never stop being grateful to the renal nurses, physicians and surgeons who made it possible. I never stop letting others know about the experience either, because I want to demystify the process for those who might be thinking of it themselves. If I can encourage one other potential donor, if I can make one other potential donor a tiny bit less scared, then it’s a small repayment for the gift of life and love that was given to me.

I’ve had a few odd reactions here and there. Some people don’t want to know – and that’s more than fair enough. Kidney failure is hardly sexy or fun, and the organs themselves are a bit eww, isn’t that offal? There’s also something genuinely weird about voluntarily undergoing major surgery not for your own health benefit. There’s something unsettling about acts of selflessness generally. Any tale of courage can tacitly whisper to the listener: would you ever do such a thing?

That question can be confronting; it can feel like an accusation itself: why haven’t you donated a kidney to someone? Come on, lift your game! Not many can donate, though: there are a whole load of circumstantial green lights you need to be able to gift a kidney. It’s a big deal – in so many ways – for the recipient, for the health professionals involved, and for the donor.

And all this is rambling preamble to how unsettling it’s been for me lately to watch the whole ‘Bad Art Friend’ kidney-donor hate unfold in the GrubStreet writers group in the US. If you haven’t heard of it, you can read all about it here. Basically, a white writer in the group decided to altruistically donate a kidney to a stranger; she set up a private Facebook support group for her kidney donation experience; she talked a lot about kidney donation (wow, really?); one of her ‘friends’ in the group stole one of her Facebook posts, verbatim, and put it in a story that was subsequently published (that’s called plagiarism, at least in Australia); arguably, that story paints the white kidney donor as a clueless white supremacist who expected adoration from her non-white kidney recipient (I know – what the actual fuck?).

Multiple implausibilities and unknowables aside, the internet erupted tribally, as it tends to do, setting up opposing camps. At first, it was hard to take the spat seriously. But when some punters started responding with comments suggesting that merely talking about kidney donation is a form of bragging and attention-seeking, I felt slapped with shame. I should have laughed at the ignorance, but the level of contempt from some commenters was scorching – especially those comments that came from other writers. Aren’t we the ones that are supposed to be trading in truth and compassion? I’m not talking about Pollyanna-ing here. Just giving a bit of credit where credit’s due. For example, when you borrow the work of another writer, you credit them; and when a colleague does something good, you can credit them with that good thing, even if you don’t much like them. You can say, ‘Yeah, well done,’ and move on.

The Grubstreet kidney donor might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea either. We’re humans, all the many billions of us. We annoy each other and do things that not everyone is going to understand. I’m a white woman who talks about kidney donation occasionally – I’ve also included it as a glancing gag in my author bio. So what? Let me have my five minutes of blather if it’s not hurting anyone.

But if anyone does seriously think I should be ashamed of myself, here are some medical facts sourced from Transplant Australia on all transplants in 2020:

  • 1,650 people were waiting for a transplant
  • 463 deceased organ donors gave part of themselves to another after death
  • 1,452 people received a transplant of some sort
  • 182 organ donors were living donors – like me

Now, I know writers can be notoriously bad at maths, but surely this equation is simple. Almost 200 people missed out on a transplant in 2020. Ergo, we need more donors. We will always need more donors. And donors, even if they are the worst pains in the arse that ever walked the earth, should not be shamed for their donation.

What’s most disappointing in all this, is that some of the writers who’ve attacked the Grubstreet kidney donor are big, big literary names, who really, really should know better. To those writers: please, educate yourselves. And if you are the decent people you otherwise seem to be, you should probably apologise for casting any doubt whatsoever on the act of giving life to someone who is dying.

Here are a couple more facts:

  • Altruistic donation doesn’t usually involve an overprivileged wanker waking up one sunny morning and declaring, ‘I’m going to donate one of my kidneys today in a grand act of white supremacy! Look at me go!’ It takes at least six months, if not a year or more, and in Australia you are required to undergo psychological testing as well as physical testing. It takes about three days to recover from the surgery, about a month to recuperate properly, and your body is scarred forever – not unlike a caesarian scar, oddly enough.
  • It must not be forgotten in all this that People of Colour, especially African Americans and First Nations Australians, suffer among the highest rates of kidney failure. Surely these patients and their families need support and accurate, truthful information, as well as investigation into the systemic racism in our hospitals, more than they need stories about irritating white people?

When my Deano was still recovering in the hospital, I kept company in the dormitory-style patient accommodation with a woman who’d just flown in from a South Asian country to care for one of her grown kids who was just about to have the same operation my husband had just survived. She was wracked with worry and maternal guilt at the distance between her and her child. When we talked, I’m sure she didn’t care too much that I was white. She just wanted to know that everything was going to be all right. She wanted to share her story, her feelings, in a time of frightening stress. And so did I. We shared some precious moments together talking about kidneys. And then we went on with our lives – lives repaired by those Westmead Kidney Magicians.

If you would like more information on kidney and other transplantation in Australia, go here.

Image: R. Runhold, 1871

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