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FOR YEARS, mechanical engineer Izak Bedeker of Brackenfell led a healthy life, cycling three times a week and participating 13 times in one of the world’s most popular cycle races – the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour.
But two years ago, things changed for the worse for this avid cyclist when, on a business trip to Joburg, he started experiencing breathing problems.
“I started breathing as if my lungs were filled with water. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. It was the most terrible experience of my life,” he recalled.
“I was very active and thought of myself as a healthy person, so being so sick was a shock for me.”
Doctors would later diagnose Bedeker with cardiomyopathy – a condition in which the heart becomes weakened and enlarged and cannot pump blood efficiently. This left his heart with only 14 percent of its function, and he had to be put on an organ donor list urgently.
But it would take another 18 months for him to finally get a donor heart when, last week, he became one of the three organ transplant recepients at the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Hospital in the city.
With August being recognised as organ donor month, Bedeker is considered one of the lucky few in SA who get transplants.
This country is one of a number experiencing a critical shortage of organ donors.
According to the Organ Donor Foundation, there are about 4 300 South Africans who need organ or corneal transplants but fewer than 600 of them are likely to get a transplant this year.
Dr Willie Koen, head of the transplant programme at the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Hospital, said SA had one of the lowest organ transplant rates in the world.
“Organ transplants in Spain are about 40 donors per million of population. In Europe and America it’s about 15 to 20 per million, but in South Africa there’s only two donors per million. We are far below the international average and that’s worrying.”
Koen said even more concerning for the country was that, despite their low numbers, organ donors were still not given priority in the hospital referral system, with doctors paying more attention to the sick.
This was often because of a lack of resources in hospitals such as beds, ventilators and staff.
Because of problems in this “stressed system”, potential donors often died in accidents in remote areas without the intervention of putting them on life support to keep their organs optimal, Koen said.
It the system was used adequately, it could improve the number of donors, he added.
“Even if we increase the numbers by five donors per million of population, that would make a huge difference… We could save more lives,” he said.
According to Samantha Volschenk, the executive director of the Organ Donor Foundation, kidneys are in greatest demand, with many South Africans turned away from dialysis treatment because of a lack of resources.
“This is a huge problem. If more transplants were performed, more space would be made available on the waiting list and in turn on the dialysis machines,” she said.
However, through more educational efforts, scepticism about organ donation was changing, Volschenk added.
She said the foundation had witnessed a 54 percent increase in the number of people signing up for organ donations this year compared to last year.
l To sign up as an organ donor, contact the Organ Donor Foundation on 0800 22 66 11.