An American Jewish campaigner who recruits volunteers to donate their kidneys has called for the rules governing transplants in the UK to be relaxed, to encourage more British Jews to perform “the ultimate mitzvah”.
Chaya Lipschutz, who runs the website kidneymitzvah.com, believes more Jewish people would come forward as altruistic donors, giving their kidney to a stranger, if they could ensure the recipient was from within the community.
In America, people in need of kidney donors can appeal in the media for strangers to come forward to help them. Hospitals have strict vetting procedures to make sure that there has been no payment or coercion involved.
However, in the UK, organ donation is regulated by the Human Tissue Authority. People who come forward are matched with the person deemed at most need and with the best tissue match. “We have to make sure that people are not paid and not forced,” said a spokesman for the HTA. “This way it is equitable and fair.”
In the year ending April 2009, 2,536 kidney or kidney-pancreas transplants took place in Britain, and there were 927 living donors.
Chaya Lipschutz believes this figure could be higher if Jews were free to help others within the community.
“In America there are more frum people coming forward to do this mitzvah. If someone wants to try and save someone’s life why put obstacles in their way? I wish England would be more open to the idea that people want to do mitzvot.”
Ms Lipschutz herself donated a kidney in 2005 after seeing an ad in a weekly Jewish newspaper. It read: “Please help save a Jewish life — New Jersey mother of two in dire need of kidney. Whoever saves one life from Israel, it is as if they saved an entire nation.”
Placing a similar advertisement in the UK would not be allowed.
Ms Lipschutz has backing for her campaign from Orthodox rabbis in the United States. Organ donation has caused controversy in the community in the past because of the prohibition on mutilating dead bodies.
In many situations, though, organ donation is allowed, and Ms Lipschutz says: “I have never heard a rabbi say there is a halachic issue with live donation.”
Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks has backed organ donation “within the parameters of Jewish law”. He said: “Saving life is, in Judaism, a supreme command and therefore both a moral and religious deed.”
Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain backs organ donation not only to save life but also to enhance it. He said: “Enhancing as well as directly saving a life is a matter of the greatest importance.”
DIALYSIS IS DESPERATE SOLUTION FOR FATHER-OF-TWO
Ask Barry Jacobs what he most looks forward to if he were to get a kidney transplant and he grins and says: “Drinking.”
It’s not alcohol that he misses. Since Mr Jacobs has had both kidneys removed, he has to restrict his fluid intake to 750ml a day. So, no water on a hot day, and no chicken soup on a Friday night. “It’s hard,” he says. “But necessary.”
Growing up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Mr Jacobs was a normal, healthy, sporty boy. However, kidney disease was inherent in his family and, aged 20, he was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease. He set up a business selling scooters and married Susie, a chartered surveyor. They settled in Woodside Park and have two children, Thomas, aged nine; and Jenna, seven.
But all the time, Mr Jacobs’s health was deteriorating, and for the last five years he has been unable to live a normal life.
First, one kidney started bleeding and had to be removed, then the other. Barry has had to sell one of his shops and struggles to run the other one. He has dialysis three times a week, spending five hours attached to a machine.
His blood pressure is very low, so he is too weak and dizzy to play football with his children. “The last two years have been catastrophic,” says Mrs Jacobs.
The family have not been able to find a suitable kidney donor but they remain hopeful.
They know, however, that if they get a call it may be a false alarm. “They always bring in more recipients than they can help, to find the best possible match,” said Susie, “but we haven’t even had a false alarm”.
Her fear is that Mr Jacobs’s condition will worsen until he is unable to tolerate a transplant.
“The more people that sign up to the organ donor register, or as altruistic donors, the more chance there is,” she says.