In a world where our ability to play "make do and mend" with the human body seems to increase on a daily basis, Unknown Country looks at the subject of organ donation and its potential physical, mental and even spiritual impacts.
The transplant of various body parts has allegedly been attempted for thousands of years, with ancient records indicating that Chinese doctor Pien Ch’iao swapped the hearts of warriors Gong Hu and Qi Ying as far back as 500BCE and that Chinese physician Hua-Tuo used anaesthetic to replace diseased organs with healthy ones. In modern times, however, the first successful kidney transplant was performed in 1954 by Dr. Joseph Murray in Boston, Massachusetts, and by the 1970s, drugs to prevent organ rejection had allowed transplant surgery to become common medical practice.
The procedure has since enabled thousands of people to benefit from an enhanced life expectancy, and given the bereaved some small consolation that the death of their loved ones has not been totally in vain. There are strict rules of confidentiality surrounding the identity of organ donors in the U.K., and recipients are told only the bare minimum of information regarding the previous history of the new body part.
But strange things are reported to follow organ transplantation, causing many people to question the full implications of receiving another person’s body part, or even just their blood.
In the news today in the United Kingdom is a tale of a lady whose intuition led her to find the recipient of her son’s heart five years after his death. Freda and John Carter lost their son, also named John, to a brain tumour in 2008 when he was just 33 years old. The family were told that organ donor John’s heart was later successfully transplanted into a fourteen year old boy named Scott but they were not told any other identifying information, and potentially the donor could have lived anywhere in the country.
Five years later, when Freda attended a memorial service for organ donors, she experienced a strange feeling when she read the order of service and saw that a man named Scott was speaking about his life-saving transplant. She knew without doubt that this was the man who had received her son’s heart, and her intuition was proved to be right.
"When I sat down and turned the page on the order of service and saw his name there a strange feeling came over me. I knew he was the recipient of John’s heart," she explained to The Daily Express, putting it down to ‘maternal instinct’.
Scott Rutherford’s life had been saved by a last-minute heart transplant – and the donor was indeed a man named John.
Freda and Scott’s first meeting was a profoundly moving experience for them both, and Freda was able to hear the sound of her son’s heartbeat once more:
"I asked him if I could feel John’s heart beat and he let me," Freda said. "It was all I wanted."
"The day when we met was unbelievable, it was some sort of miracle," reported Scott. "I felt like I was in a film."
This may have just been a happy coincidence, but so many inexplicable incidents have begun to occur post-transplant that scientists are beginning to question the full impact of transplant surgery. Donor families who do have the chance to meet the beneficiary of their loved one’s organ often describe how they are able to detect and recognise familiar personality traits in the new host.
Jamie Sherman from southern Arizona was born with a heart defect and received a transplant in November 2001, after which she developed a craving for foods she had never eaten before, namely cheese enchiladas, bean burritos and soft tacos.
Six months after the surgery Jamie met the family of her heart donor, Scott Phillips, who told her that, yes, he had loved cheese enchiladas! Jamie also reported having a deep sense of anger after the operation, an odd reaction that she could not understand at a time in her life when everything was going so well for her. "I couldn’t understand where it was coming from," she said, but Scott’s family were able to offer her an explanation. "His mother told me, ‘Scott died in a fight,’ " said Jamie, who felt certain that this was the reason for her odd feelings of rage.
Scott’s mother also reported feeling the essence of her dead son through Jamie: "His mother said to me, ‘Even though you have different color eyes, I can still see him through you,’ " reported Sherman.
Are these perceptions merely borne of sentiment in the donor’s family? Are the recipients’ experiences simply the result of having life-changing surgery, or is there a more intriguing explanation?
There is a weight of evidence that suggests each one of our cells carries a mini-memory bank, a biological device that carries previously held memories from donors into the new recipient. Some scientists began to recognise and research the possibility of "cellular memory" after heart transplant patients began to display strange cravings and mild personality changes. Major organs such as the heart, liver, kidney, and even muscles have been shown to contain large populations of neural networks, which can effectively function as self-contained "brains" and which could theoretically hold memories.
Biological theories for this favor the presence of neuropeptides that facilitate communication between the brain and other bodily organs and for other organs to relay information back; the discovery that neuropeptides exist in all tissues, has posed the question of whether they can store memories.
Gary E. Schwartz, PhD has documented cases of cellular memory in 74 patients, 23 of whom were heart transplant recipients.
One of the most astonishing examples concerned an eight-year-old girl who received a heart from a ten-year-old female murder victim. The recipient child suffered dramatic post-operative nightmares about the murder of a young girl. The dreams recurred and were taken seriously by her psychiatrist, who perceived them to be genuine "memories" from the donor. The detail in the dreams proved to be so accurate that the information eventually resulted in the arrest of the murderer.
Despite these amazing and thought-provoking cases, only a few broad-minded doctors embrace the concept, and this field of research is generally disputed by mainstream medicine who attribute the behavioral changes in patients after transplants to surviving in the face of death and being given a new chance at life. There could certainly be some truth in this, but some of the very specific effects described by recipients of donated organs continue to baffle doctors.
Bill Wohl almost died from cardiac disease in 2000, and was given a heart transplant at the University of Arizona medical center. A few weeks after the operation, Wohl heard a song on the radio by British star Sade, an artist whose music he had never previously encountered.
"I just started crying and rocking," said Wohl who, prior to his operation had been a hard-hitting top executive with a tight hold on his emotions. He later contacted his donor’s family who were able to inform him that his donor, Michael Brady, had been a huge fan of Sade. Wohl was stunned.
"It was really, really freaky," he reported.
From a spiritual perspective, organ donation causes some controversy. Most religions advocate the idea, seeing the body as just a container for the soul which lives on after death, and so consider the act of donation to be a virtuous deed that helps to save lives. Others, such as some Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, struggle with the concept and it has been the subject of much controversy and religious discussion.
Transplantation is now allowed for Jehovah’s Witnesses, but can be confused by their refusal to accept donated blood. Judaism is also reluctant to agree to the unnecessary mutilation of cadavers after death, and ideally burial of the complete body 24 hours after death is preferred, as it also is in the Islamic faith. The desire to save lives overrides this belief in many Jews, as this objective is thought to supersede all others.
Other spiritual schools of thought even suggest that it attracts positive karma to the donor, though spiritual research conducted by the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, a organisation that aims "to educate society on the spiritual dimension and how it affects our lives", has shown that when an organ is donated, a "give-and-take account" is generated, meaning that the donor will begin to have a karmic share in the sins and good deeds that the organ recipient subsequently commits after receiving the organ. Potentially this means, say the Foundation, that "donating an organ to an evildoer may result in us accruing sin."
The Foundation suggests that " the unwanted spiritual effects of organ donation outweigh the positive outcomes. In general, it is best for the average person to avoid organ donation."
This would not be a viewpoint shared by those who have had their loved ones’ lives extended by amazing medical procedure; for them, the joy they have been given must surely count as a spiritual blessing; however, it seems that there is certainly more to organ donation than the replacement of faulty organs with working "spare parts."
If we expand the concept of organ transplantation to include blood transfusions, then vast majorities of the world’s population will have benefited from the receipt of bodily cells from another human being. But are the Jehovah’s witnesses right to refuse to take in the blood of another? Does blood also contain the life force or essence of the donor?
There is even less scientific evidence to support this theory, but various examples of anecdotal evidence are available from a variety of different sources. A forum post on the San Ramon Regional Medical Center website describes a personality change in a man who received a massive blood transfusion.
"Having served in both world wars. Dad was a very strict, military type," explains the user. "After the transfusion. His strictness had gone. As one might say. He had become like, putty in your hand. You could twist him around your little finger."
Another post on a forum exploring cellular memory reads thus:
"Two years ago I had major surgery and needed a blood transfusion a couple days afterwards. Once I regained my appetite and was able to eat, I craved junk food and fast food. I was a very healthy person before that. I was not a red meat eater but now, I can’t get enough BBQ ribs and bacon. I thought I was losing my mind! I have also lost my drive to do my daily jog like I used to and the really crazy thing is that I am now a "football wife". I never really liked sports before."
I can add my own anecdote to these, as I personally experienced some very strange effects after receiving blood. I have always been a non-smoker, yet after being the recipient of several pints of donated blood some years ago following the birth of my daughter, I suddenly developed intense cravings for cigarettes. I did not succumb to these cravings, but for many months following the transfusion, my desire to smoke was so strong that it took all of my willpower not to buy a packet and light up; I could even taste the smoke and the imagined sensation of drawing it into my body. These cravings have since subsided, but I have to report that whilst writing this piece, I would not have been averse to having a quick smoke! Go figure.
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