A few months ago I was asked to make a hospital visit. But it was not the normal kind of hospital visit. A man had died and his brother desperately wanted a Rabbi to come and say kaddish (the mourners prayer) with him at the bedside. When I arrived, it seemed the message had become a little scewed along the way, and the man's brother had been pronounced as brain dead, but was still being kept alive on life support machines. They were forcing his chest to rise and fall as his lungs filled and emptied, and while it is unusual to say kaddish for someone before they are buried, I certainly didn't feel I could do it with a man still breathing.
I was taken aside and it was explained to me that the hospital needed to discuss organ transplantation with the family (2 half brothers it turned out - one of whom was not Jewish) and so he was kept breathing to preserve the valuable organs in case they could be donated.
What followed was the most heart breaking decision. 2 men had to decide what their brother's wishes would have been, whilst dealing with his unexpected and early death. The older brother, who had contacted me initially, felt very clearly that to give the gift of life is an incredible Mitzvah, the greatest one could perform, and so it must be done - helping others live would be his brothers final and greatest gift. But the younger brother very clearly remembered a conversation from 10 or more years earlier, when a driving licence form was being completed, and he clearly had felt unwilling to, even superstitious about donating his organs.
While the brothers discussed and weighed up the pros and cons, asking for the advice of myself and the nursing staff, the transplant co-ordinator explained to me just how common it is for families to have no idea what the wishes of the deceased are in these tragic cases. These moments are so awful and unexpected, adding the weight of such huge decisions to a mourners heavy load makes it so much harder, and I saw that torment first hand as the family struggled to do the right thing.
This week is National Transplant Week. It is a great mitzvah to save a life, indeed the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teaches that "Whoever destroys a single soul... scripture holds as if he had destroyed an entire world. And whoever preserves a single soul, scripture holds as if he had preserved an entire world". The same sentiment is found the the Quran (5:32). There has among some quarters of the Jewish world been debate as to whether organ transplant is permitted because of how Judaism has defined death and the causing of death. However organisations such as the Halakhic Organ Donor Society have worked hard to explain how it is possible and thus to save lives. Most importantly though, whatever your understanding or approach, is to make sure that your family know your wishes either way. Don't leave them to figure out what you would have wanted, when they are also dealing with their grief. Please discuss and share, ask the questions, even when these are things we hope we never need to know.
For more resources on Organ donation, particularly if you would like to raise awareness, visit http://www.transplantweek.co.uk/action_pack/