Marked for a life: get a free tattoo to show you’re an organ donor
A new campaign uses needles and ink to help people show they intend to make that lifesaving decision
Two Johannesburg organ recipients hope a simple quotation mark will help organ donors have the last word, even if they are unable to speak.
Grateful double-lung recipients Alice Vogt, 34, and Fawn Rogers, 31, started the Transplant Education for Living Legacies (TELL or Te”) organisation in September 2018 to prompt donors to let it be known that they intend to donate.
They said most organ donors believe their organs will be harvested. But even if you are on the Organ Donor Foundation list for donation, it is still up to your loved ones to make the final decision.
And, despite the database, unless a donor tells their families their wishes, families and hospitals have no way of knowing.
They hope a simple quotation mark tattooed anywhere on the body will erase any doubt on their death that they want to donate their organs.
Vogt said: “Our campaign slogan is ‘Organ donation starts with conversation’. Our hope is that getting a tattoo will initiate a conversation, the way that people always ask what do your tattoos mean. We believe conversations between donors and their families will let the families be 100% sure that their loved one is a donor.
“We also know that donation organisations go straight to families to ask for the organs rather than check the donor database, so telling our families we are donors is helpful in this way,” she said.
Their first campaign was held at Sally Mustang Tattoos in Sandton last Monday, where 84 donors received a free quotation mark tattoo to show they want their organs harvested.
“Transplants have saved both of us and we are so grateful to be alive that we just wanted to give back in some way,” Vogt said.
“We both started working at the foundation but for us the bigger issue was that so many healthy organs are lost because families are not aware of their loved ones’ wishes.
“Our organisation serves to create awareness around donors so that families will be completely sure of their wishes should there come a day when they need to make that difficult decision,” she said.
“Some people write their wishes in their living wills, but the reality is that once the will is read, it is often too late. Organs need to be harvested very soon after death,” Rogers added.
According to the ODF, there are about 4,300 people waiting for a life-saving organ or tissue transplants in SA, but only 0,2% of South Africans are registered organ donors.
And of the 0,2% only a fraction will have their organs harvested. According to the foundation this is because families may not know their loved ones are donors, or because their religion or beliefs may differ from the deceased.
The ODF gives donors stickers to use on important documents, such as driver’s licences or ID books, as well as a donor card to go into their wallet.
But being part of the organ donation list does not serve as a legal contract.
Chantel Dacosta, manager at the tattoo parlor, said she was proud of the team of six artists who gave up their day off to create awareness around the campaign.
Vogt said the campaign was so successful they have had offers to host three more at different parlours around the country.
Vogt and Rogers suffer from cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. Vogt is the first person in SA to survive a second double lung transplant.
“Lung transplants are miracles. You need to find a donor who matches your tissue and you need the lungs to match your body size. To find a viable matching pair is next to impossible and to find two matching pairs and to survive those operations is just a miracle,” Vogt said.
She was diagnosed at the age of two, her first transplant was at 23 and her second at 33 after her body rejected the first donor lungs.
Rogers met Vogt in hospital while she was awaiting her set of lungs. It took her a year to find a matching donor.
“My lips were blue, my fingers were blue, I was literally drowning.
“People don’t realise you can’t just go on a transplant list. You need to be in a really bad state health-wise. But you can’t be too sick either because then you won’t survive the operation and the healthy lungs will be wasted. So it’s a balancing act.
“I eventually had a feeding tube because I couldn’t eat and I was too skinny to survive an operation,” Rogers said.
She was 25 when she received her new lungs.
“My mom used to wake me up at 12am to force feed me protein shakes before my first lung transplant, because otherwise I wouldn’t have enough calories to survive the night,” Vogt added.
The first thing she noticed after her transplant was that the room was silent and she was lying on her back.
“With [cystic fibrosis] you can’t lie on your back because you will drown, and your lungs rattle and rasp as you breathe. But once I had my new lungs I couldn’t believe how much energy I had,” she said.
Rogers agreed: “I immediately pinked up, my blue fingers and lips went pink. It was incredible how much energy you have after. We are so grateful.”
According to the foundation, one donor can save up to eight lives by giving away lifesaving organs: two lungs, one heart, two kidneys, a liver (which can be halved to save two people) and a pancreas.
The donor is also able to save and enhance the lives of more than 100 people through tissue donation, including corneas, skin, bone marrow, heart valves and veins.