The Phoenix Zine

Top Five Worst Movies About Organ Donation: Number Two, Part One


Number Two, Part One:  21 Grams

Three lives intertwine when a hit and run accident leaves three dead and one man with a new heart.  21 Grams explores this entanglement through a plot that jumps back and forth in the storyline during the entire movie.

So let me boil it down for you.  Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-convict who recently became a born-again Christian.  He has turned his life around and is convinced that the truck he won in a raffle is a sign of favour from God.  One day while driving said truck, Jack accidentally hits and kills a man (Michael) and his two daughters (Cathy and Laura).

Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is the wife of Michael and the mother of Cathy and Laura.  A former drug addict, Cristina’s family has been her salvation and motivation for staying clean.  When she finds out she has lost her entire family in one accident, she is devastated.  At the hospital she is approached about her husband becoming an organ donor, and she makes the decision to donate his organs.

Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is in the final stages of heart failure waiting on the transplant list for a new heart.  Hooked up to an oxygen tank, he waits at home with his wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) until one night he gets the call telling him a heart (Michael’s) has become available.

After the accident, the deaths and the transplant, Paul feels like he doesn’t know who he is any more, and is understandably curious about who his new heart came from.  He hires a private detective to investigate and is presented with details about the accident, Jack Jordan and Cristina Peck.  Paul seeks out Cristina, and tells her after they have met a couple of times that he received her dead husband’s heart. 

21 Grams is a gritty film filled with complex motivations and emotions.  While I feel the storyline is a bit over the top, I have new-found respect for the movie after recently having a heart transplant myself.  21 Grams does an excellent job of representing the stress and grief experienced by both the transplant recipient and the donor family.  Paul, dealing with feelings of responsibility for Cristina, expectations from his wife Mary and the stress of recovery, begins smoking again.  Cristina wants retribution and loses her motivation to stay away from drugs.

Instead of enforcing organ donation misconceptions, 21 Grams puts one to rest.  Organ donation misconception number seven: Transplant equals new life equals old problems just disappearing.  I love the scene in 21 Grams that takes place with Paul and Mary where Mary says that she thought the transplant would change Paul and Paul tells her that he is still the same person.  Organ transplants aren’t personality or behavioural transplants.  Life is different and has new challenges, but the person facing those differences and challenges is the same and the problems that existed before the transplant still exist afterward.

The reason why 21 Grams makes my list is because the whole movie ends up being a frightening endorsement for organ donation misconception number eight: Transplant recipients get to meet their donor’s family.

Paul has to hire a private investigator to find out where his new heart came from because the hospital won’t tell him.  When I had my liver transplant back in 1988, my family did receive some information about the donor.  That was when the liver transplant program was new at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and the rules surrounding donor anonymity far more lenient. 

Now, in the age of the information, the protection of donor anonymity is highly enforced.  After my heart transplant last November, I received absolutely no information about my donor.  That is because any details given could be used to figure out who the donor is and possibly where their family lives through a simple Internet search.

This anonymity is imposedto protect both parties in a transplant, the donor’s family and the recipient.  Receiving an organ is not like getting someone else’s blood, there are complicated emotions that go along with it.  As seen in 21 Grams, a relationship between the two parties has the potential to quickly turn toxic. 

Unless you have a living donor transplant, in Ontario, the only contact donor families and transplant recipients are allowed to have is through Trillium Gift of Life.  Either party can send an anonymous letter to Trillium Gift of Life, who will read the letter to make sure no identifying information has been revealed and then send it on to the other party. 

Admittedly, it isn’t a perfect system, people still manage to figure out who their donor was or who received their loved one’s organs.  The point is the system exists in case either party does not want contact.  A letter does not require a response, whereas a phone call or a person showing up at your door does.  And after watching Paul and Cristina in 21 Grams, as a double transplant recipient I appreciate that system all the more.

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