ORGAN DONATION ACTIVIST: “DREW HAD A BIG HEART. I’M HAPPY IT’S STILL BEATING”

Over numerous TV and radio appearances, Sharon Abela got used to sounding confident and positive as she talks about her devastating loss. Yet she admits that even three years later, there is no such thing as moving on. “I call it a continuation, because you cannot move on, you don’t. You just move with the loss. Many people tell me, ‘you’re strong, you’re courageous’. I’m just the same as everyone else, I just channel my energy in places where my love is.”

In 2016, Sharon and her husband Kenneth lost their son Drew. “Literally as soon as [medical staff] told me there’s no hope, I didn’t wait for them to tell me to donate his organs. I literally said, ‘What can we save?’ It was automatic. I always believed – not just now – that we can focus our energy on creativity to do good, or on negative things. When you suffer a tragedy like this, if you’re not focused or not careful, the negative energy can take over. So I immediately wanted to do something good with what had happened,” she remembers the fateful days. Today, Sharon and Kenneth are busy raising awareness on organ donation in their Life After Drew campaign with Transplant Support Group – an NGO they joined immediately after the loss.

The family are determined to honour Drew (second from the left) by advocating for organ donation

Drew now lives in seven people, and his parents, together with his aunt Claire Galea, are busy campaigning for more individuals to express their wish regarding organ donation in an online form. They encourage people to take a ‘selfless selfie’ after signing up to the government’s database, and remind donation-ready individuals that the old donor cards are no longer valid.

“It’s been an amazing journey. We literally went viral,” Sharon Abela summarises, as the campaign enters its third and final month. Months after Drew’s death, the family approached the president of Malta for funds. “We made miracles with the humble sum [received], because of so many people coming on board and offering to help us, to actually give us air time, space in newspapers, space in magazines, space on billboards.” In addition to raising awareness, the parents want to honour Drew, remembering that the whole family had decided to sign up as donors decades ago. “We’ve always been open to human condition issues, always in favour of people who are suffering, people who are passing through injustices,” Sharon explains.

Meeting the recipient of his son’s heart was a long and emotional process. After inviting recipients on TV to approach the family, the couple received a message from the heart recipient’s husband. Kenneth met him first, while the women waited until they were ready – and immediately discovered a strong emotional connection. “Drew had a big hear, and I’m happy that that heart is still beating,” Sharon smiles. “Because it helps mine to beat as well. I could stay all day talking to you about him. He loved all kinds of music – rap, Pink Floyd, rock, some classical music as well. He was very patient, he could spend hours trying to make or build something. His friends tell me that he always brought the group together,” she remembers as she shows photos of Drew sporting carnival costumes hand-crafted by her – a lecturer in art and design and an all-round creative.

Drew and Sharon were very close

“This is something that people don’t understand: the pain is because there is a discontinuation,” she suddenly reflects as she talks about his love for Batman and Disney. “He would probably say, ma, this is really old, I’m not into that anymore.” Being unable to check things with him, message him frequently still haunts her thoughts. And yet she is confident that taking a similar decision can help more families deal with their loss. “People want to do it, they just need a push, need someone to nudge them. When you see a story and when they hear what it means, and you see the comfort it gives us to see the smile on Christine’s [the recipient’s] face… you’re thinking about giving something which is more difficult than money. Also, leaving a legacy behind. I’m sure no one sees it as an ‘I want to live in someone else’s body when I die’ statement, rather, I want to make someone else leave a better life when I die.”

The family has enjoyed full support of the church, and they are glad to see that taboos surrounding death – especially thinking about one’s own death proactively – are slowly dissolving. Yet the work is not over: “There needs to be someone on duty to help the family, because you won’t be yourself. You won’t know what’s going on, you won’t realise if you need help. You get help when you’re [in hospital], but once you exit there needs to be a mechanism that someone checks on the family, checks on the parents, how are they doing, assess their behaviour,” she points at some areas that still need improvement. “I’ve spoken to many families, and I’ve realised that at a vulnerable point in time you need someone to tell you, listen, this is how it is. When a loved on a machine, it seems like they’re still alive. I had to struggle with that, I had to process it, be kept reassured that that was it. I’m not saying this to scare people, but especially when a child passes, you need all the help that you can get.”

Kenneth’s selfless selfie

The Life After Drew campaign runs throughout March. Registration for organ donation can be found here. You can follow Transplant Support Group and the #lifeafterdrew hashtag.