JACQUES Lambiotte smiles as he points to a photograph that hangs on a wall in his lounge. It’s a family portrait with his wife, children and grandchildren. The 69-year-old, who used to be a gun runner in the then Belgium Congo, feels fortunate to be in the photograph. That’s because 30 years ago, he thought he would be dead. His kidney had stopped working.
“There was a possibility I’d never get to see my children and grandchildren grow up. It was a painful thought to process,” Lambiotte recalls, sipping on a cup of coffee at his Inanda home in Sandton, north of Joburg. Today, he lives a normal, healthy lifestyle – thanks to an organ donor. His journey to find a donor was documented in the Saturday Star 30 years ago. Lambiotte would be given a second chance after undergoing a successful kidney transplant at the then Johannesburg Hospital.
“Ultimately, if I didn’t have a donor I wouldn’t be here talking to you,” he says. “Now I’m very positive, to the point where I think I may be even able to see my great-grandchildren grow up too,” he says, happily. Lambiotte knows how lucky he is. He waited just nine weeks on the transplant list before he received a kidney from a man who had died in a motorcycle crash. “I’ve been able to enjoy life to the fullest. I play tennis three times a week. “I’m able to travel abroad, and continue working like I used to. “It is all thanks to my donor. I’ve been given a second chance and have been living each day as if it were my last.”
In South Africa, less than 0.2% of people are registered organ donors. That is why Lambiotte chose to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his kidney transplant by raising awareness about organ donation.
For the next few months, Lambiotte will be on a mission to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation in the hope that many more South Africans sign up.
“There are many people in South Africa waiting for organs. In reality, some people die before they can get an organ because of the shortage of donors in the country.” For Lambiotte, it’s simple: why waste an organ when you can help save someone’s life?
“When you are buried, you turn into dust. So those organs go to waste. There are many people out there who will happily accept an organ when they need one, but won’t in turn sign up to be donor. You cannot have your cake and eat it.
“Even when I’m on the tennis court, I think about how lucky I am. A simple thing such as going to pee is something I’m grateful for. Before, I had a machine urinating for me. Now I can do it myself.”
Worldwide, every day 57 people receive organs but 13 people die waiting. “Hopefully corporate companies will allow me to give motivational talks on organ donation so we can spread the word on how important it is to sign up as a donor.”
Lambiotte has enlisted the help of two other Joburg woman, Alice Vogt and Shaylene Perry, who are both organ recipients. Perry underwent a lung transplant last year, a week before her daughter’s third birthday.
Before the transplant, doctors were unsure whether the 33-year-old would live to see her loved one’s third birthday. Thankfully, a pair of lungs became available and saved her life. The weeks leading up to her transplant were a battle. “It’s hard to describe how limiting your life can be when you’re on an oxygen machine,” she says. “I couldn’t even brush my teeth. I had no energy. I was also unable to leave my bed without a wheelchair. You have to deal with physical effects of the disease and the emotional side. “In South Africa, it’s a reality that you won’t get an organ in time, it’s just the way it is.” Perry now leads a normal life, and no longer has to move around with an oxygen tank, thanks to her donor.
“The greatest joy is being able to do the things I never could with my daughter, like join her on her bike rides.”
Vogt also underwent a successful lung transplant, a decade ago at the age of 23. She was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the lungs. Over the years, her lungs deteriorated.
Both women run a non-profit organisation, Love Life Gift Life, with two other women, that raises awareness about organ donation. “I look back at the last 10 years of my life and see how so much has changed,” she says. “I’m amazed to think that I wouldn’t have seen any of it if it wasn’t for my donor,” says Vogt, who now needs a new pair of lungs and has to use an oxygen tank again. Her body is rejecting her donated organs.
“It’s natural that a foreign body is not responding well in my body. Hopefully I can be helped again.”
Perry adds: “If people are educated and are made aware of the importance of organ donation, it can go a long way in helping someone in desperate need.”