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Canadian Woman Finally Gets Organ Transplant Through 'Kidney Cult'

An ailing Canadian woman who was denied a life-saving organ transplant last year because of a Toronto hospital’s ethical concerns about the proposed donor has received the young Australian man’s kidney after all — during an operation in Cyprus.

Sandi Sabloff, whose scuttled transplant bid drew national media attention in Canada last spring, spoke with Canwest News Service on Saturday from the Paraskevaidion Surgical Transplant Centre in Nicosia, where she is recovering from surgery.

So, too, is her controversial Samaritan — 23-year-old Ashwyn Falkingham, whose membership in a generosity-driven religious group dubbed “the kidney cult” had convinced the Toronto General Hospital to cancel Sabloff’s scheduled organ transplant nearly a year ago.

“I’m doing great,” Sabloff said.

But she added: “I am so furious” at government and hospital officials in Canada for blocking last year’s planned surgery and forcing an overseas transplant. “This should never have happened.”

Thursday’s transplant followed months of searching by Falkingham and Sabloff, who has suffered from chronic kidney failure for nearly 20 years, for a hospital willing to perform the procedure after the high-profile Toronto cancellation.

But the woman who had described herself as “devastated and heartbroken” less than a year ago, when Toronto hospital officials rejected Falkingham as an unsuitable donor, is clearly in a healthier state after receiving one of the Australian man’s kidneys.

“This is being done so we can publicize the fact that organ donation can save many, many lives — and our government at this point in time is sitting on its butt and doing nothing,” she said. “We do not have a national registry — they’ve talked about it, and they have done nothing. If we had a national registry we wouldn’t be literally throwing organs into the garbage. That is what is truly happening. People die every single day when we can prevent this.”

Sabloff, whose father died of kidney disease and whose brother received a kidney transplant, had told Canwest News Service last June: "I’m down to about seven per cent (function) left in one kidney. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to find a way to do this.”

Falkingham and Sabloff had initially connected through an Internet site linking potential organ donors and recipients, then maintained a regular e-mail correspondence, before he came to Canada last March ahead of the planned surgery. During the weeks he spent in Toronto waiting for the operation that never happened, Falkingham and Sabloff visited Niagara Falls, Ont. together and "he spent three months practically living here," Sabloff said at the time.

The case had been closely tracked by an Australian film crew because Falkingham’s membership with the Jesus Christians, whose members believe that giving up an organ to save someone’s life is an exemplary act of devotion to God and humankind.

The Toronto hospital cancelled the scheduled transplant following accusations of religious brainwashing, appeals from Falkingham’s mother and stepfather to stop the surgery, and extensive psychiatric assessments of the man after his arrival in Canada.

More than half of the 30 members of the Jesus Christians — from Britain, Australia, Kenya and the United States — have provided a kidney to recipients around the world, the donations often a source of great ethical agonizing.

The group’s 61-year-old founder, Dave McKay, gave one of his kidneys in 2003 at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, where a transplant doctor has said there was “much teeth gnashing” among hospital officials before the operation was approved.

After its decision not to go through with the Falkingham-Sabloff transplant last year, Toronto General Hospital president Dr. Bob Bell said that when transplant decision-makers review any proposed surgery, "it is crucial that we maintain total unanimity" before a donation is approved.

"It’s a difficult ethical determination," he said at the time, noting hospital officials must be convinced "the person providing the tissue or organ is doing it purely for altruistic reasons — particularly if they don’t know the recipient.”
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