Skin bank dried up

Dr Dos Passos, head of the burns unit at Red Cross War Memorial Childrens Hospital.

Doctors at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital say they are in dire need of human donor skin, as there is currently a severe shortage.

During a media conference at the hospital on Friday August 23, Bone SA marketing manager Ana Sterrenberg said they had started the skin bank about three years ago, but had not “banked” once because as soon as the skin came in, it went out.

She said the shortage of skin was so bad that when a doctor requested skin, they had to fill out a form, detailing all the medical issues, that was then sent to a panel to decide who would get the skin.

“There is such a shortage, but, more importantly, we need to get the message out there. If every person who dies just gave us a little bit of skin we would not have any issues,” she said.

Ms Sterrenberg said many people did not understand that this could save people’s lives. She said they had not been able to help the burns unit for the past two months.

Dr Dos Passos, head of the burns unit, said the shortage of donor skin forced them to use inferior animal-derived or synthetic products, meaning prolonged hospital stays and recovery periods with more complications.

They often had to revert to using the patients’ own skin, as well.

He said donated skin was the best treatment option as it took the role of the patient’s own skin, and even though the body eventually rejected it, it gave the body time to recover.

“In the beginning, while the patient is ill, because of all this trauma, the stress that it takes on the body to take his own skin to cover the wound is a massive physiological extra stress on the patient. Patients who received cadaver skin fare far better than those who don’t,” he said.

He said there were five patients at the hospital waiting, who were being held back.

South Africa with a population of 58 million only has 300 000 registered donors, according to Sandra Venter, from the Centre for Tissue Engineering.

In some other countries, all citizens are considered organ donors unless they opt out, but in South Africa you have to opt in to become a donor.

“How can we possibly think that 300 000 people can provide for the need of 58 million — it is impossible,” Ms Venter said.

Many only realised just how vital tissue and organ donation were when a loved one needed it, she said.

Natasha Hendricks’s 14-year-old son, Nathaniel, died after he was shot when he went to the shop in Mitchell’s Plain. At Groote Schuur Hospital, someone approached her about organ donation.

“It was like someone hit me with a train. I was out of oxygen and I didn’t know how to breathe,” she recalled.

The woman explained to her that there was a seven-year-old boy born with a congenital heart defect who had been in hospital his entire life.

Ms Hendricks donated Nathaniel’s heart, as well as his kidneys and blood, and ended up saving five people’s lives.

“The only thing that came to my mind was that I had 14 years with my son. I got to see him run around, jump, hug me and hear him say, ‘mommy I love you’, and I wanted to give that to another mom. My son died a hero.”

Dr Peter Nourse, a paediatric nephrologist, said they had about 20 children waiting for kidney transplants.

“The problem with these children was that they ended up on dialysis and go through a lot of suffering during this time. It it very important for children to get a new kidney as soon as possible – if you compare the growth and development of a child on dialysis compared to those that received a transplant, it’s like chalk and cheese,” he said.

Spinnekop (Eric Nefdt), the man who spent 37 days running from Luderitz to the hospital to raise awareness about the dire need for organ and tissue donation, was also at the press conference. He has now set out on the next leg of his journey, which will end in Cape Agulhas, on Sunday, if all goes to plan. He and his team,

Normie Eckard from Ventures for Christ and AJ Van Der Walt, will make appearances at public venues along the way.