Story transcripts

The gift

Sunday, July 29, 2007
Every week, one Australian dies waiting for a kidney transplant.
Reporter: Peter Overton
Producer: Mick O'Donnell, Hugh Nailon

Why Michelle Eather had to leave Australia to donate a kidney and save a dying man.

It seems such a stupid law. Say you desperately need a kidney transplant. I read about you on the Net and decide I want to give you one of mine — right now, while I'm still alive.

Well, I can't, not here in Australia.

Naturally, there are reasons for the ban but surely they have to be weighed against one inescapable fact. Every week, one Australian dies waiting for a kidney transplant. And the tragedy is, there are plenty of people who want to help.

Fifty Australians are registered on one website alone,

One of them was Tasmanian Michelle Eather, who went all the way to America to donate her kidney to save a dying man.


PETER OVERTON: Half a world away from home, Australian Michelle Eather is about to save the life of a man she's just met.

MICHELLE EATHER: I have a dream just to help someone that needs someone like me to step in and help. That's what it is.

PETER OVERTON: American Ronnie Andrews is receiving one of Michelle's kidneys. Without it, he would die.

RONNIE ANDREWS: I feel truly blessed that this wonderful woman is willing to save my life.

PETER OVERTON: Can you imagine lying on this operating table with your kidney about to be removed and given to a complete stranger? It's at this moment that you realise what Michelle is doing is truly extraordinary. Michelle's incredible journey of sacrifice begins back home, in small-town Tasmania. She's 37, she's very fit, and recently she made a remarkable decision, one that few of us could comprehend. Who does wake up in the morning and thinks, "I wanna give someone my kidney"?

MICHELLE EATHER: I did. I can do it and remain healthy for the rest of my life. So, why not? Why not? Why can't we just believe for just a little while. We're a society that just stopped believing in the goodness of people.

PETER OVERTON: Making this life-changing decision was one thing, but actually giving away her kidney here in Australia proved impossible. Why? Well, it's almost unbelievable. Even though many on dialysis, like these people here, desperately need donor kidneys, it's illegal for Michelle to choose one of them, unless they're a relative or close friend. Let's get this clear. You tried to donate your kidney in Australia?

MICHELLE EATHER: Yes, I did. There's just no way for me to do it in Australia. There is no way to do it.

PETER OVERTON: But Michelle was so determined she decided to look overseas for someone who needed her kidney. That's when she found Ronnie Andrews. Ronnie is a 60-year-old grandfather and businessman whose kidneys failed three years ago. Michelle found him on a donor website. In the US, where thousands die each year waiting for kidneys, Internet matching is now widespread and perfectly legal, as long as no money changes hands. And it was Ronnie's story that touched Michelle's heart. His story clearly still upsets you.

MICHELLE EATHER: The more I've got to know him, the more it does upset me.

PETER OVERTON: Like so many on transplant waiting lists, Ronnie's life is miserable — seven days a week on dialysis which artificially filters toxins from his blood.

RONNIE ANDREWS: I am, in effect, under house arrest. I must be here every night at eight o'clock to connect to that machine without fail. I cannot do it and I'll feel horrible and, ultimately, I would die if I didn't.

PETER OVERTON: Michelle Eather has a full life. She and her husband, Mark, have five sons between them. Her kidney is no match for any of them, should they ever need it, and her youngest son, Bradley, is absolutely aware of just what his mum's doing.

BRADLEY EATHER: It's about caring about another individual so much so that you're willing to lose a part of yourself in the process. That is courage.

PETER OVERTON: That's clearly what you see in your mother.

BRADLEY EATHER: Most definitely.

PETER OVERTON: It's not as if Michelle's donor kidney isn't needed in Australia. There are nearly 1400 people waiting for transplants right now, with little chance of getting one for years, if ever. The statistics are one Australian dies every week waiting for a kidney.

MICHELLE EATHER: Yes. Needlessly. It is needless death.

PETER OVERTON: So, instead, it's an American who will benefit from Michelle's selfless gift. After months of tests and preparation, she arrives in Washington DC for the operation. Two days later, it's time. What Michelle is doing is considered unethical under Australian guidelines.

RONNIE ANDREWS: Well, I think those guidelines are antiquated. One should be free to offer an organ or a philanthropic gift of some kind to whomever they wish.

PETER OVERTON: Faced with such tough regulations, many Australians are taking desperate measures, even travelling overseas to pay for kidneys. Before he came here, to the Philippines, Sydney man Tan Quach had spent years in failing health, waiting for a transplant. What was dialysis like?

TAN QUACH: I would never wish this on my worst enemy. Sure, it prolongs your life, but it's the worst way to prolong your life, in my opinion.

PETER OVERTON: And it got so low, you were almost wishing that you would just …

TAN QUACH: Disappear. Not being a burden on my family.

PETER OVERTON: You wanted to die?


PETER OVERTON: But, in the slums of Manila, he found his saviour. Eddie, a poor villager, agreed to sell Tan a kidney for $20,000 — money that allowed him to buy a new taxi to support his family. It was all organised through a major government hospital. Can I see your scar, Eddie? When you see the scar, Tan, that's a huge sacrifice Eddie has made.


PETER OVERTON: How does that make you feel?

TAN QUACH: I feel more honoured and happy and I feel like the second chance in life, and I feel Eddie is my brother.

PETER OVERTON: But, unlike Tan, most Westerners who come to the Third World for organs are exploiting an ugly black market. If you're desperate for a kidney and willing to break the law, Manila's Baseco slum is kidney central. They harvest kidneys here at an incredible rate, about one a day. Show me your scars. See there, there, there, there and there. These fellas have all cashed in, sometimes for as little as $1000. It's a shocking trade but, in a place as poor and desperate as this, flogging your kidney on the black market is the only way to survive. Sara Jane Toledano is a Filipino academic studying this insidious trade in body parts. What does $1000 or, if they're lucky, $3000, mean for these people's lives?

SARA JANE TOLEDANO: It's a short-term fix because they don't know how to invest their money, so it's all gone by this time. After a year, it's gone.

PETER OVERTON: But now, the Philippines Government is trying to wipe out the black market by creating an official system for paying kidney donors.

SARA JANE TOLEDANO: They get health insurance, educational help for their kids, and also guidance in investing their money when they go through this program, instead of going through a broker.

PETER OVERTON: So, you see kidney donation as a good thing ...


PETER OVERTON: ... but done in the right way?


PETER OVERTON: Back in America, Michelle Eather goes under the knife. For nearly two hours, the surgeons delicately work to remove her left kidney. And this is it. So, have you got a good kidney?

SURGEON: It's a beautiful-looking kidney. Beautiful extraction. So, we're gonna take this next door.

PETER OVERTON: So, there it is — Michelle's kidney. Not long ago, it was in her body and while they say it is routine surgery, to me, it is utterly miraculous. Now it'll be put into Ronnie and, hopefully, it will save his life. This kidney looks pale to me. Once you connect it to Ronnie, will that just come to life, in terms of colour?

SURGEON: Yes, sir. You'll see the colour change. First, the kidney will turn a little bit blue when we release the vein, and then the kidney will turn pink when the artery is released.

PETER OVERTON: Ronnie's blood starts to pump through his new kidney — watch it turn from white to pink.

SURGEON: Notice the kidney pinking up now? Basically, the kidney is reprofused now.

PETER OVERTON: So are the signs good that Ronnie should do okay?

SURGEON: Oh, I think he should do fantastic. A day later, and Michelle comes in to check on Ronnie. If he can get through the next three months without rejection, Ronnie will lead a normal life.

RONNIE ANDREWS: With the gift of this kidney, I'll be able to go wherever I want to go, do whatever I want to do. I'll gain my independence back, which is just the most thrilling thought I can have.

PETER OVERTON: I suppose with Michelle's kidney, you'll now be able to pee?

RONNIE ANDREWS: Can't wait! I know that sounds silly, but it's going to be the most marvellous feeling to be able to stand there and piss in the toilet.

PETER OVERTON: And, as for Michelle, she can live as long as anyone else with her one remaining kidney. Her only regret is that she couldn't do this for another Australian.

MICHELLE EATHER: I get to wake up every day knowing that I did something for someone else and I want nothing for it, and sometimes they're the things that make us feel best about ourselves, when we can just do something for someone else.

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