“The purpose of power is to give it away”—what covid can teach us about organ donation

Nye Bevan, the son of a coal miner and arguably the founder of the NHS, once said “The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.” Through the covid pandemic we have all seen how the true power of medicine lies not with doctors, or nurses, or the hospital buildings, but with the public. Until society is rescued by vaccination and herd immunity, this pandemic will only be controlled by a collective willingness to follow the rules, socially distance, and if necessary self-isolate.

Most people follow this advice which restricts their freedom, not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of otherstheir family, their neighbours, and even strangers they may never meet. But while feeling altruistic, these actions actually benefit us all and when also followed by others, help us too.

So as the waves of the pandemic eventually quell, let’s hope it leaves in its wake important lessons for other public health challenges. Every year over three hundred friends, families, and strangers die waiting for a transplant in the UK. Countless others never make it onto the six thousand long list due to the short supply of just four thousand organs that are gifted each year.

Yet, the reasons for this shortage are not due to science, or technology, or medicine. Just as the public can help others so much through their actions, they can sometimes harm through omission. Organ donation is a gift that can only be given when it is no longer needed. If we wear masks and stay at home to help others we may never meet, perhaps this will be the nudge the public need to give the gift of life to others after they have died. This altruism after death, will help all of us in life.

Using the historical ties and relationships between Commonwealth nations, a new project, called the Commonwealth Tribute to Life aims to foster closer working and share knowledge around organ and tissue donation and transplantation. We hope that by the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, we will have gained support from Commonwealth nations for a memorandum of understanding on organ and tissue donation and transplantation which reflects our shared values and will provide a framework for the sharing of knowledge and experience. Just as the pandemic will only end when it ends globally, we too need to care for patients whose lives would be saved from transplantation in countries not just our own.

Matt Morgan, Honorary senior research fellow at Cardiff University, consultant in intensive care medicine, research and development lead in critical care at University Hospital of Wales, and an editor of BMJ OnExamination. 

Twitter: @dr_mattmorgan

Competing interests: none declared.

Paul Frost, Reader at Cardiff University, consultant in intensive care medicine and Clinical Lead for Organ Donation at University Hospital of Wales.

Competing interests: MM is a member of the UKAP for Commonwealth Tribute to Life Project