A Canadian hospital has cancelled an operation that would have allowed a young Australian man to demonstrate his deep Christian faith by donating one of his kidneys to a stranger in Toronto.
The case has been closely tracked by an Australian film crew because the would-be donor, 22-year-old Ash Falkingham of Sydney, belongs to the controversial Jesus Christians, the “kidney cult” whose members believe that giving up an organ to save someone’s life is an exemplary act of devotion to God and humankind.
The Toronto General Hospital cancelled the scheduled transplant following accusations of religious brainwashing, appeals from Mr. Falkingham’s mother and stepfather to stop the surgery, and extensive psychiatric assessments of the man after his arrival in Canada.
For nearly two months, Toronto General, Canada’s largest organ transplant hospital has been wrestling with whether to allow a young Australian man to donate one of his kidneys — as a gesture of his Christian faith — to a virtual stranger in Toronto desperately in need of a transplant. Ash Falkingham joined the Jesus Christians at age 19. As he explains in his extended interview, he was taken with the group’s literal interpretation of the Bible.
The decision has left the ailing Toronto woman, Sandi Sabloff, “kind of devastated,” she said in an interview yesterday. “I’m not in good shape.”
Ms. Sabloff is consulting a lawyer “to see what my next step is going to be,” and expects “to start looking for another donor.”
More than half of the 30 members of the Jesus Christians — from Britain, Australia, Kenya and the United States — have provided a kidney to recipients around the world, the donations often a source of great ethical agonizing. The group’s Australia-based leader, 60-year-old David McKay, gave one of his kidneys in 2003 at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, where a transplant doctor has said there was “much teeth gnashing” among hospital officials before the operation was approved.
In keeping with its policy of “absolute confidentiality,” the Toronto General Hospital refused to divulge details of the Falkingham-Sabloff case. But hospital president Dr. Bob Bell said yesterday that when transplant decision-makers review any proposed surgery, “it is crucial that we maintain total unanimity” before a donation is approved.
“It’s a difficult ethical determination,” he said, noting hospital officials must be convinced “the person providing the tissue or organ is doing it purely for altruistic reasons — particularly if they don’t know the recipient.”
The story of the planned Toronto kidney transfer was detailed last night on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary program ‘Australian Story’.
“When I tried to donate a kidney in Australia, there was this legal sort of hurdle that I had to get over, of forming a long-term friendship with my recipient,” Mr. Falkingham said in one scene, according to a script provided by the ABC to CanWest News Service. “And so that’s why I am going to Canada, going overseas to donate.”
He arrived in Toronto before the scheduled April 30 surgery and met Ms. Sabloff for the first time since the two connected several months ago through a Web site called Living Donors Online.
Mr. Falkingham’s offer to give Ms. Sabloff one of his kidneys was followed by regular e-mail correspondence as the two worked out details of the transplant.
“I was alternating between being a nervous wreck and being thrilled and excited and happy and so on, and just sort of preparing for this,” Ms. Sabloff said in the program. “And Ash was laid-back, as usual.”
Mr. Falkingham added: “I don’t feel that I’ve been pressured into donating at all ? Perhaps people might see me as, you know, young and naive and idealistic. I see it as a small thing. There are six billion people on the planet, and helping one, I think, it’s just human nature.”
But hospital officials postponed the transplant after Mr. Falkingham’s mother, Kate Croft, raised alarms about her son’s membership in the Jesus Christians and charged that Mr. McKay had coerced Mr. Falkingham into making the donation.
“I do feel that Ash has been pressured,” Ms. Croft said in the film. “I’m certain that the pressure to donate a kidney is one of the many pressures involved in being a member of this group ? I would say it’s a cult. I would say it’s a sect. I would say it’s a madness.”
Mr. McKay is shown rejecting the cult label and recalling his revelation about organ donation as a perfect demonstration of Christian charity: “This is, like, the ultimate, you know? That I could actually save somebody’s life was amazing. Even if it was only one, it was something I wanted to do because that is what we Jesus Christians were all about, is trying to help people.”
But the concerns raised by Ms. Croft and her husband, Nick, prompted the Toronto hospital to conduct additional assessments to determine Mr. Falkingham’s state of mind, the ABC reported. The delay frustrated both Ms. Sabloff — whose brother died from kidney disease — and her young Good Samaritan from Australia.
The broadcaster announced just hours before its documentary aired last night that the hospital’s final decision to disallow the operation came on Saturday.
“A Sydney couple has managed to block their son’s attempt to donate a kidney as part of his membership of the controversial group, the Jesus Christians,” ABC said. “After initially approving the operation, Toronto General Hospital told Mr. Falkingham on the weekend that they will not go ahead with the donation. He is now on his way back to Australia.”
Dr. Bell, who is also chief executive of Toronto’s University Health Network, said nobody has “a right to donate,” even though transplant hospitals everywhere are trying to expand the supply of willing donors and available organs. He also noted that any potential donor has the right to a professional assessment of his or her “appropriateness” to give.
For her part, Ms. Sabloff told the Australian filmmakers that “what upset me an awful lot was the fact that here we went through a whole process and total honesty, telling them everything that was occurring with us and the Jesus Christians and so on. We held nothing back.”
Mr. Falkingham, who is shown visiting Niagara Falls with Ms. Sabloff as they await approval from the hospital, added: “All this being done in the name of ethics becomes unethical, stopping someone from doing something they really think should be done.”
A message from Ms. Sabloff, posted on Living Donors Online, notes:
“I am truly devastated and heartbroken that Toronto General has banned this altruistic donation, particularly since the hospital had approved the operation and sent me a letter confirming the operation date…. The bottom line, I believe, is that [the] hospital is very worried about negative publicity, especially in relation to the Jesus Christians.
“The situation had turned into not only a farce but a nightmare ? They have wasted our time, our money, our energy. They have created untold stress and anxiety and I am back to ground zero, feeling pretty hopeless and upset.”
…this post forwarded by a Windsor Humanist (N.Hod) after a June 5, 2007 article by Randy Boswell in The National Post