How far would you go?

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
School's out, Santa's almost here, but for some the best present is yet to come. Hannah Frankel reports on the teachers who give life-saving chances to pupils

Would you lend your pupils money? Let them stay at your house? Or could you risk your life to save theirs? Patsy Donahue did not hesitate when she heard that one of her pupils would die without a kidney transplant.

Even though she could have died during the operation, she gave Brandon Shafer - a 10-year-old pupil she had known for just three months - her kidney.

When Brandon was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an incurable genetic condition that affects one in every 10,000 children, his family were tested to see if they could become donors. They were not suitable matches, but his teacher was. "It wasn't a difficult decision," Patsy, 25, says. "My father had leukaemia and wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for the bone marrow transplant he received. I know how important it is to give if you can."

After taking three weeks off work following the operation, Patsy is now back teaching at her elementary school in Illinois, America. Brandon has also made a speedy recovery, and is now on three medications a day, as opposed to the nine before the transplant.

"Brandon and I will have a special connection for the rest of our lives,"

says Patsy. "He's a part of me now. I would do it all over again in an instant."

Such examples are almost unheard of in the UK, which has nearly exclusively favoured live organ donations from family members and close friends.

However, the Human Tissue Act now provides greater flexibility in who can donate to whom.

Teachers in the UK can donate live organs to a pupil as long as a "close and meaningful relationship" is proved to exist. People can also donate their organs to strangers as part of the newly introduced altruistic or "good samaritan" donations (see right), something one 60-year-old teacher has already done.

The new legislation offers fresh hope to some of the 7,000 people on the transplant waiting list, and the many more who may need a transplant but are too sick to face one. St Benedict's Catholic College in Cheltenham refused to hang around and wait for a suitable match when Rebekah Deponeo, aged 13, needed a bone marrow transplant to tackle her leukaemia. It rallied the whole community and ran a school donor recruitment session at the end of November, with 170 blood samples taken within three hours.

People who could not donate - those outside the 18 to 40 age bracket - also came to offer support and help with refreshments.

Colin Revell, Rebekah's form tutor and head of ICT, was one of the donors on the night. "It was shocking and upsetting when we learnt about Rebekah's illness. Everyone felt hopeless and wanted to do something to help her.

With assistance from the Anthony Nolan Trust, we managed to do something really wonderful at a difficult time."

The school's support has made a difference for Helen, Rebekah's mother.

"I've been concentrating on getting Rebekah through chemotherapy and trying to stay positive, so knowing the school has been looking out for her has been a weight off my mind."

Rebekah has now found a match from outside the school and is due to have a transplant next spring, but the more matches there are, the better. She will then have to take six months off school, but will be provided with a laptop and webcam so that she can keep in touch with teachers and friends.

Schools can be a great source of comfort for sick parents as well. Lesley Carter, the head at Lakeside Primary in Frimley, Surrey, has known the Moore family for 16 years through the sons they have sent to the school.

So when it became clear at the end of last year that the father, Stephen, was urgently in need of a bone marrow transplant, she organised a donor recruitment session.

"As a school, we pride ourselves on looking out for children on an individual basis, so if a crisis like this arises within the family we try to help as much as possible," says Lesley. "Their son now feels much more comfortable about discussing his dad's illness with us."

The donor clinic was so successful that the school had to turn people away.

On the evening 182 donors were recruited, all of whom could go on to save someone's life.

Steve McEwan, chief executive of the Anthony Nolan Trust, a charity that matches leukaemia patients with donors, says: "It would be wonderful if all schools considered holding a donor registration session. In many cases, a bone marrow transplant offers patients their last chance of survival"


A 60-year-old teacher from Manchester became the UK's first good samaritan donor earlier this year, when she offered her kidney to a stranger.

The woman, who teaches at a pupil referral unit, had to convince the Human Tissue Authority that she was motivated by a desire to save a life and not to gain publicity or money. She also had to undergo extensive medical and psychological tests for two years.

It is hoped her generosity will lead to more people donating their organs both during and after their life. The national shortage of organ donors has been attributed to a reduction in car crash victims, reluctance by relatives to permit the removal of organs from their loved ones, and a growing demand for kidneys due to the rise in diabetes.

For more donating information, visit:


Lucy Pearson, 7, who attends Western Downland Primary in Hampshire, was born with congenital heart disease. When she was unable to complete her three-stage heart surgery, she was given a year to find a new heart before the condition would become life-threatening.

Last December she was put on the active transplant list and this summer received a new heart. "She's like a brand new girl," says Beverley, her mother. "She can bounce on a trampoline, walk and laugh."

Lucy's school has gone "over and beyond the call of duty", she says. It created a "cosy corner" for her to relax in and, when she was not allowed out at breaktime, it made a rota so that a friend stayed with her each day.

Due to her acute fatigue, Lucy was statemented and provided with a one-to-one teaching assistant for 25 hours a week. The assistant went on to teach her at home every day for three months while she was off.

Meanwhile, trips were arranged to the hospital, letters were written, photos of Lucy put up in the classroom and, when her parents couldn't pick up their other daughter because they were at the hospital, teachers stayed late to look after her. Beverley says: "The teachers couldn't do enough to help. I'm not sure we could have done it without them."

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