After 19 months of wrenching uncertainty, retired Toronto computer-sales executive Sandi Sabloff was resting in a Cyprus hospital yesterday after a kidney transplant she says has granted her “a whole new life.”
But not without formidable resistance from the parents of the donor, 23-year-old Australian Ashwyn Falkingham, who belongs to a Christian sect that has so far helped orchestrate 19 such transplants.
Convinced their son had been brainwashed by the group’s U.S.-born leader into giving up his kidney to a stranger he met through the Internet, Kate and Nick Croft sought to prevent the operation, originally to have taken place last April in Toronto.
And for a while they succeeded.
Despite doctors’ approval, the operation was abruptly cancelled by the Canadian hospital’s administration, which voiced concerns about “coercion” and about the attention being shown by a hovering Australian television crew.
Speaking from his hospital room yesterday at the Paraskevaidion Surgical and Transplant Centre in Nicosia, Mr. Falkingham did not sound like he had been coerced into anything.
“I’m chuffed, it’s amazing how well this has worked out,” he said.
“We didn’t know how good the match was until the day before the operation. I’m obviously a little sore, but I’m really happy that it’s worked out so well.”
And the day before Ms. Sabloff departed from Toronto for Cyprus, there was more good news.
Reversing itself, with an assist from MPP Mike Colle, Ontario’s Ministry of Health informed her that it would pick up all the hospital costs.
Mr. Falkingham belongs to the Jesus Christians, a religious grouping whose critics have dubbed it a “kidney cult” because more than half of its members have donated the organs.
Not true, said founder Dave McKay, reached yesterday in Australia where he described his 30-strong group as “utopian and idealistic.” The many kidney donations reflect “the pretty basic Christian understanding to treat others as you want to be treated yourself.”
There was no argument there from Ms. Sabloff, fulsome in her praise for the donor, the hospital and surgeon George Kyriakides, who performed Thursday’s operation, which lasted several hours.
“Ashwyn is a very exceptional, giving person, just amazing, he’s really hung in there for a long time,” she said.
Moreover, despite their protracted opposition to the transplant, Mr. Falkingham’s mother and stepfather now seem to have shifted position.
“They’ve turned out to be quite supportive,” Ms. Sabloff said. “[Ms. Croft] sent us both a note saying it was a good thing he did and that she’s looking forward to a good, ongoing relationship.”
That would represent a considerable change of feeling.
Against the wishes of their son, the couple had flown to Cyprus and strenuously tried to prevent the surgery from going ahead, according to Mr. McKay.
The Crofts could not be reached for comment yesterday. But they had previously criticized the Jesus Christians’ kidney donations as a publicity stunt engineered by a man who controls what his followers do and say. Their worries were such last year that Mr. Croft e-mailed Ontario’s Health Ministry and Toronto General – Canada’s largest organ-transplant centre – to say his stepson had been brainwashed and was incapable of making decisions for himself.
Ms. Sabloff and Mr. Falkingham met in August, 2006, via a website called Living Donors Online, an information and message site for potential organ donors and recipients. They were put in touch through Mr. McKay, who explained that Mr. Falkingham had intended to donate a kidney to an Australian woman but that she died before the transplant could take place.
After the Toronto operation fell through, Ms. Sabloff tried to get it done in the United States, but was daunted by the cost, which the ministry initially said it would not pay.
Then Ms. Sabloff connected with Dr. Kyriakides, whom she met through a doctor she knows in Israel. And with one of the world’s highest per capita rates of organ transplants, Cyprus was a natural choice of location, she said.
Looking ahead, she expects to return to Toronto in a few weeks.
For his part, Mr. Falkingham will be going back to Australia to start up a project collecting secondhand bicycles that will be shipped to Kenya, where affiliates of the Jesus Christians run an orphanage.
Described as an offshoot of the California-based Children of God, the sect was founded in 1982 by Mr. McKay, 62, who 15 years earlier moved to Australia from Rochester, N.Y.
Eschewing materialism, its members are encouraged to hand over their savings to the group and to give up family, friends, possessions and – in 19 instances so far – one of their kidneys.
Scattered across Australia, the United States, Britain and Kenya, they live uncluttered lives as they await the second coming of Christ.
But they are not publicity shy and have co-operated in several television documentaries.
Mr. McKay, who has himself donated a kidney, has said he became interested in the procedure after watching the 1999 movie A Gift of Love, in which a high-school student gives a kidney to his grandmother.
And he could hardly be more pleased about this latest transplant, which took place just three days before Easter Sunday.
“It’s a resurrection for Sandi,” he said.
With a report from Matt Hartley
Mar. 21, 2008