By Nicholas Gambin
Nicky sat down with Mr James Muscat, the president of The Transplant Support Group, to discuss his raw experience of being the first unrelated kidney donor in Malta.
Within the European Union, Malta is the second most popular country to consent to organ donation. However, although 95% of the Maltese population actually agrees with it, not as many people are registered as donors.
James Muscat, 57, first got involved in the voluntary philanthropic organisation known as The Transplant Support Group in 2004. He joined the committee as vice-president just a few weeks after his experience as a living donor. After holding that position for 13 years, he was then asked to take over the role from the president at the time, the late Alfred DeBattista, due to the fact that his health was deteriorating.
James donated his left kidney to his late brother-in-law David on 25th February 2004. “I’m normally very lousy with dates, but this particular one is embedded in my brain,” he remarked. However, James’ transplant journey began back in 2002, during one of his hospital visits to see him. David, who was married to James’ sister, was hooked up to a dialysis machine at the time, which was helping his kidneys function as well as keeping him alive. “When I realised how terrible kidney disease can be, I said to myself that I’d see what I can do to help him out”.
Without knowing much about what he was going into, he decided to take the chance and begin looking into organ donation. This included an important discussion with his family and parents, as he said that if anyone had any major concerns, he would have cancelled the process. Luckily enough, they approved of his decisions, and after several visits with his consultant, he was told that he could inform David about his wish to be his donor.
Another date that will forever remain in James’ memory is December 2002. “I remember I went to visit David and I told him ‘I brought you a gift’. He said ‘Where is it?’ I told him, ‘No, this isn’t a boxed-present, so to speak’. He said ‘What did you bring me? You’re always bringing gifts. So I told him, ‘I would like to give you a kidney, to help you out’.” James added that this was a very emotional moment – not only for David and himself, but also for his sister and the rest of their family.
Aside from the emotional aspect, this transplant was also a very important milestone within the field of organ donation. James was the first unrelated kidney donor in Malta, and because living donors were extremely uncommon at the time, he remembered that it had caused a bit of a stir. Initially, he wanted to keep the story out of the public eye, but the media got to know about it and he was then interviewed. However, he added that “the interview happened on condition that my story would create more awareness”, and shared with me that there has been a remarkable increase in both living and deceased registered donors since then.
James explained that he felt honoured that something living within him was actually transferred to somebody else. He also added that when David passed away, a little part of James – specifically his left kidney – was buried with him. “It was a loss, but the fact that I knew that David survived a good number of years and that the transplant helped to improve his quality of life, still made me feel good.” In fact, his consultant had actually told James that if it hadn’t been for the transplant, David would not have survived at all.
14 years later, James still carries this good feeling with him. He described to me what happened right after the operation. “The first person who came to see me was my youngest son Malcolm. He was 16 at the time, and I remember telling him what a wonderful feeling I had. This was just a couple of hours after the operation, and I wasn’t yet in my full senses. But the element of satisfaction was already there.”
When I asked James to sum up his experience of being an organ donor, here is what he had to say:
“It is a big act of altruism, if I may say so, and I think I am speaking on behalf of all living donors. Nobody ever regrets going ahead with the transplant. It is something unique, and it’s the greatest gift anybody can give during their lifetime. It is something very very altruistic. It has to be done with no concerns at all. Otherwise, I think the ultimate result would not be the same. The element of satisfaction that one feels after being a donor is something which cannot be explained verbally. It’s something which is deep within us, and I think it is an experience which only living donors can truly appreciate.”