Alone we can do so little - together we can do so much

A look at the successes of the first ever joint NHSBT/BTS Congress

18 March 2019

If Organ Donation is to continue to succeed we need as a community of professionals to be prepared to embrace change and innovation.

Anthony ClarksonLast week was an exciting example of what we can achieve when we are prepared to do this.

In the past we, NHSBT, have held our own biennial Organ Donation Congress while our colleagues working in the Organ Transplantation pathway have attended their own British Transplantation Society (BTS) congress. Colleagues from both pathways attended each others’ events but not in such large numbers that there could be a true cross-pollination of ideas, so the decision was made that 2019 would see the first ever joint NHSBT/BTS Congress and last Tuesday I was one of hundreds of colleagues from across the UK who made our way to Harrogate to take part.

Wednesday morning was the start of the Congress and the whole first day saw joint plenary sessions where organ donation and transplant issues were considered and discussed. We started with some excellent presentations from the NHSBT statistics team which placed into clear focus the reasons we were all present: there is no doubt that in the last 10 years we have achieved much in organ donation in the UK which we can be proud of. However, while patients are still dying waiting for an organ, overrides still prevent donor decisions from being honoured and organs are not utilised we still have much to do.

The easier ‘big’ wins have already been explored and tackled, so increasing donor and transplant numbers now will depend upon all of us as a united donation and transplantation community working to achieve the marginal gains. This will mean challenging every instance where donation is thwarted and ensuring every organ that can be safely transplanted reaches a recipient. It will not be an easy process but those depending on us have a right to expect our best efforts to achieve this and working together will be vital.

Both inside and outside the sessions, what really struck me was how natural the joint congress felt. Colleagues who work together in the pathway meeting and sharing ideas at Congress seemed so obvious that it seemed amazing that we had never done it before! Even sharing a smoked tofu salad micro lunch could be considered a bonding process of sorts! The bright side of the lunch was the opportunity to network and to visit some of the excellent stands and posters around the venue, all of which further exemplified the opportunities to share learning that were being taken advantage of.

Max Johnson with Anthony ClarksonImage: ‘meeting the star of the Congress, Max Johnson after his presentation’

The highlight of the first day, and if I am honest the entire Congress, was the final session where we heard Max and Kiera’s story from the amazing Max Johnson and his family and the incredible parents of young Kiera Ball.

You may well have heard of Max and Kiera, they are the young people the newly assented Opt-Out Organ Donation law in England is named after. Max received the heart that saved his life at 9 years old after Kiera, also 9, lost her life in a tragic accident and her family made the wonderful decision to donate her organs.

Max delivered his own PowerPoint and speech and was frankly brilliant! The prospect of being so clearly out-presented by an 11 year old was something I tried to push to the back of my mind since I was first up to speak the next morning. To see Max so well and thriving, and to hear from Kiera’s parents of the comfort they feel from seeing Max alive and well, was inspiring and emotional. I don’t remember any presentation receiving two separate standing ovations at a NHS conference but they did and it was utterly deserved. I walked out reinvigorated and more determined then ever to increase organ donation in the UK and I know that I was not alone in that.

This was a congress of first and last events for me. Having been in post as Director of Organ Donation and Transplantation for just over a month it was my first congress as Director and I had the opportunity to address delegates in the first session on Thursday. It was a pleasure to have the chance to share my ambitions and plans with colleagues and to invite them all to participate in the work that will take place in 2019 to formulate the Strategy to replace Taking Organ Transplantation to 2020.

There were then some fascinating and informative sessions in which we learned more about the new Opt-Out law and listened to learning from Welsh colleagues who have trod the path of legislative change before. We then broke for a series of break out sessions before lunch and more break out sessions that traversed the entire breadth of Organ Donation and Transplantation. The sessions were extremely high quality, authoritative and informative and once again the mix of donation and transplanting colleagues in each room was proof positive of how much we were all benefiting from the joint event.

I said this was a congress of firsts and lasts for me, and sadly the last I referred to was the fact that this would be Sally Johnson’s last event. As Director of ODT for 10 years and now acting Chief Executive, Sally has been a stalwart of organ donation life in the UK. However she is now mere weeks away from her well earned retirement and this would be the last time many colleagues would have the opportunity to see and listen to her.

I chaired the session in which Sally delivered a presentation on the potential directions and aims of the next strategy. It ended, as it should, with a fulsome and deserved tribute from colleagues, a standing ovation and the opportunity for colleagues to end the day with coffee and cakes to say goodbye and wish her well. Sally will be missed and I will work to ensure I build and carry forward the legacy of her work.

Sally Johnson presentation

image: ‘The end of an era, Sally’s last presentation to Congress’

Friday morning’s session looked in particular at transplant outcomes and the factors that impact upon success in transplantation. The event was, in my view, an entire success and my sincere thanks goes to the BTS and ODT team whose innovative work made this event possible. I look forward to us all working together moving forward to make the bonds between colleagues in Organ Donation and Transplantation ever stronger and to offer all our patients the world class service they deserve.

Thank you as ever for taking the time to read my blog.
With best wishes