By Samwel Farrugia
Samwel speaks to Mr Joe Bonello, heart transplant receiver and secretary of the Transplant Support Committee, about the raw miracle of organ donation.
Kindness and altruism are viewed by many to be amongst the most basic of human emotions. Acts of kindness – from a child dedicating their life to helping their parents, to firefighters rescuing people from life-threatening situations, or even to saving the lives of animals – warm the hearts of all those who watch. Organ transplants are one facet of human kindness; a very important and life-saving one which literally involves a person giving his own body to someone else. A single organ donor can save up to eight lives and anyone over 16 can register to become an organ donor, which means that this altruistic act is available to most of the country.
I met up with Mr Joe Bonello to discuss all organ donation, and what it means to be on the receiving end of organ transplants at his welcoming home in Santa Lucia. As I walk into the living room I am struck by the amount of pictures he has of his relatives, which basically covers his living room table and glass cabinet. With the sounds of birds chirping in a quiet, idyllic background, Joe starts his story by telling me what he currently does. He is a secretary of the Transplant Support committee, as well as a councillor in the Santa Lucija council. However, most importantly, he is known as the first Maltese person to have had a heart transplant in Malta, by a Maltese medical crew at St. Luke’s hospital.
When asked to recall what it was like to go through the operation, Joe admits that he had no idea what he was going in for. He believed until late that night that the doctors had found something wrong following a routine check-up, as they asked him to spend the night in the hospital. Back then Joe had suffered from a major heart infarct – a small area of dead tissue caused by a failure of blood supply – on October of 1987, which at 50 years of age, turned his world upside-down.
“Honestly I did not know or hear of any transplant before the day… in the evening when I was supposed to go back home, the doctor told me ‘I’m sorry but you can’t go home’. I said ‘uh-oh, something’s wrong’.” What Joe was heading in for was the seven-hour operation which would transform his life. The heart was that of a 17-year-old boy, who had died in a motorbike accident in Gozo and happened to be of the same blood type as Joe.
Asked what he felt as he went through the process, Joe tells me that for the most part he was happy. Happy that he would no longer be in pain because of the infarct. “I can say I was born again. I always say I have a second birthday on the 25th of September”. However, he also expressed concern for the relatives of the patient, as it is an awkward situation to be in as a parent.
I also touched upon his experiences since then, as a secretary for the committee, and he remarks that people sign up because of different types of altruism. If someone wants to sign up to become an organ donor,the process is extremely simple. They can either obtain and fill a form from Mater Dei or polyclinics and fill up one found on the organ donation government website. Joe also clears up some misconceptions which discourage people from becoming organ donors.
“Some of them say they are afraid that their organs would be taken from them before they were dead. But I can guarantee that they will really be dead when the act of donation happens.” The body of the deceased is checked by three different specialists at the time of death, to certify that they are truly deceased. Other reasons include a change of religion as well as change of heart.
As Joe reminisces about the operation, which took place in September, 22 years ago, he tells me that the heart infarct did in fact have a silver lining. While waiting on the St Luke’s Hospital bed during his biopsies, he met with the late Alfred Debattista, who would eventually become the third Maltese heart receiver. Happening to be on beds next to each other, they came to a decision that afterwards, they would start a transplant group to help others in a similar situation. Alfred Debattista, who passed away last year, went on to become president of the support group and raise major awareness about organ donation up until his death at 80 years of age.
Joe Bonello expresses that he is an organ donor himself, and had donated blood before his heart transplant. He can’t donate his heart, but he can give the rest. “If my other organs are good, why not?” As the interview came to a close, Joe told me that he holds organ donation sacred, as it is the greatest gift one can give to another person and he calls that gift, the gift of life.