Opt for Life

This morning, at an hour with which we’re not very familiar, before even the weather had decided on its choice of wardrobe, Mr D and I stumbled into our car and headed south to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. We arrived at the top of the Royal Mile:

‘Shall we park here and walk down or should we try to get a bit closer?’

‘Here’s fine, it can’t be that far, we’ve got plenty of time.’

Turns out it’s called the Royal Mile for a reason. By the time we arrived, our half hour surplus had dwindled to minutes and security took care of those. At least the sun was out.

Brian and BiboWe were there to show our support for a Private Member’s Bill launched by MSP Anne McTaggart – Transplantation (Authorisation of Removal of Organs etc) (Scotland) Bill. The bill proposes that Scotland move from an opt-in system of organ donation to a ‘soft opt-out’ one. In other words, rather than signing up to be a donor, it would assume everyone to be one unless they have specifically registered their wish not to be. The soft opt-out also allows for the family or a registered proxy to object if they know or have reason to believe that their loved one did not want their organs to be donated, or if they themselves are against it.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I received a heart transplant 18 months ago on Christmas Day. I was one of the lucky ones. Every day, people across the UK, die whilst on the list, waiting for a transplant. In Scotland, public consultation suggests that more than three quarters of the population are in favour of organ donation yet less than half are on the donor register. The Transplantation Bill would help bridge that gap.

But for the kindness of a stranger and the courage of their family, I wouldn’t be here. It’s impossible for me to express how grateful I am. My heart transplant didn’t just save my life, it gave me a future that as little as two years ago, I could only have dreamt of. A future where climbing stairs, walking to the shops, sleeping on my back with just one pillow, bending to tie my shoes, getting out of the shower unaided, dancing at my wedding, and all the other things I never believed possible, became a reality.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve met several people who’ve also had heart transplants and all of them not only appreciate the value of the gift they were given, they also treasure every moment of their new life. They know what it cost someone for them to be alive and they have no intention of squandering it.

IMAG0358 (2)I don’t pretend to understand the bureaucracy involved in passing a bill into law. I do know that, at this stage, it’s important that as many MSPs as possible lend their support to it. To help this process along, if you agree with the bill, you could contact your MSP and ask if they have added their name to it and if not, if they would be willing to do so.

It’s a cliché but life really is short. Organ donation not only saves lives it transforms them – the aim of the new bill, if passed, is to improve the chances of a transplant for more people in Scotland. In Wales, the law is in the process of being changed in this way and in countries around the world it already is so. Hopefully, Scotland will soon follow.

Find out more on the Opt for Life campaign, led by the Evening Times, here.

For those interested in reading some of my own writing, The Jungle Rock, is the extract based on my own experience on the urgent transplant list, as published in the Next Review. It forms part of my unfinished LPoW (Longer Piece of Writing).

***  The photos are of my friend Brian with a self-portrait painted from a photo his wife Bibo took whilst he was in ICU immediately after his transplant, and of Bibo with part of one of her sculptures – a bronze cast of her face. Both are part of their exhibition, The Shared Heart, which I wrote about in my last blog.

Feel the fear…

In the last couple of weeks, Mr D and I have made our spoken word debuts; both of us taking part in The Front Room in Alloa, and Speakeasy at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh. In Alloa we gathered in an artist’s studio – one of several in the artist collective based at Marcelle House (part of the Maker’s Village). Around 30 people cosied in, straining the studio at the seams. Confidence skittish, I entered the room holding Mr D’s hand a little too tightly, an extract from my LPoW tucked in my pocket, my fingers returning to it again and again as I sat, summoning up the courage to add my name to the list of readers. Mr D, a seasoned performer in another incarnation, signed up, sat back down and struck up a conversation with two poets sitting in front of us. I decided I’d wait until after the first half before committing to make the transition from voyeur to participant.

A sticky camaraderie bound the room together: poems, short-stories, nerves, laughter. Mr D crested the first half, a wave of applause depositing him back beside me. He’d seemed so confident but when he folded his notes I noticed his hands shaking. Decision made. If he could do it despite the nerves, then I could too. So I did. In the second half. I scanned and read, editing as I went along. I looked at no-one and everybody; shook and smiled, and sometimes I remembered to breathe. At the end I returned to my seat and Mr D stroked my hand. I was glad I’d done it. Surely it would be easier the next time.

Speakeasy posterFast forward a fortnight and I’m standing to the side of the stage, about to be introduced as the first act in the Speakeasy. There’d been a brief sound-check earlier in the evening when, freaked out by the microphone, I’d decided against using it in favour of projecting my voice. I’m considering the wisdom of that decision. Then there’s my name, and I’m on stage. The lights are down, it’s silent, peaceful, welcoming. This time I begin with an extract from my writing, before talking a little about my experience; the latter is the more daunting. There’s a point where I think I might not get the words out – I pause, collect myself and though my voice wavers, I manage it. The dimmed lights make it impossible to see anyone other than the front row of the audience but I know they’re there, my friends, rooting for me, like they’ve always done, lifting me, spurring me on. I finish with another extract. The audience gasps at the end and then, applause. It’s over. I smile, say thank you, and wonder how on earth I’m going to manage to make it back to my seat without my legs buckling under me.

In the break several people come over to talk to me, to tell me they enjoyed it, to ask me more about my transplant. I’m moved and humbled by the response. Friends hug me and one hands me a glass of red wine: wine on an empty stomach! By the time the second half begins, my hands have stopped shaking and I’m basking in alcohol’s warm embrace. Mr D rounds up the evening with stylish ease (only I know how his hands shook before taking to the stage).

Ten minutes on stage but several days of preparation. I am in awe of those that do it on a regular basis. Not only were all the other performers amazing to watch, they were also fun, reassuring and really great people – several confessing to being nervous before every show. It was a fantastic to share the experience with them. Later, in the pub, I was asked if I enjoyed it. On balance, yes. Would I do it again? Buy me another glass of red wine and we’ll see.

For those of you interested, you can read the extract from which I read here – the full extract is about to be published in the Next Review.

To book tickets for next month’s Speakeasy visit the Scottish Storytelling Centre.