• The Woods-Barnard family, whose moving organ donation journey features in ‘Dying to Live’. (SBS)Source: SBS
A second chance at life comes in some surprising forms.
Jim Mitchell

23 Jan 2019 - 11:58 AM  UPDATED 23 Jan 2019 - 11:58 AM

There's no doubt that waiting for an organ donation is a harrowing experience, not just for the patients but for their loved ones, too. New documentary Dying to Live follows the emotional journeys of Australians on the donor list, and their families, as they await the donation of organs or tissues by “physical philanthropists”.

To give you an idea of what you can expect from the doco, we pulled together the following stories about people whose lives were saved thanks to organ donation. Get the tissue box ready...


Love blooms after a partial liver donation


It would seem an unlikely outcome: lose half your liver via organ donation and gain a wife. But that’s what happened after former US Marine Christopher Dempsey heard about Heather Krueger in the break room at work. Krueger, a complete stranger with stage four liver disease, was in desperate need of a partial transplant. After a two-year illness, doctors had told Krueger that without a transplant there was only a 50 per cent chance she would be alive in two months.

The process from donation to marriage was swift. Dempsey told Krueger he was a match in February of 2015 (and even organised a fundraiser to help cover her medical expenses) and the pair went on a few dates before the surgery the next month.

Dempsey proposed to Krueger in December of that year, and they were married 19 months after the surgery. Their story has now been made into a movie, Once Upon A Christmas Miracle, and the couple is in the process of adopting a baby.


The woman with two birthdays

Mary Chan says she is very blessed because she has “two birthdays. One is when I was born, and the other one is when my brother gave a beautiful gift to me.”

The active single mum was playing badminton when she collapsed due to kidney failure. Her brother Raymond donated his kidney.

Chan rings her brother every year to thank him. He says, “Not to mention [it], it’s what families do for each other,” she relays.

She’s now able to live an active life again, and has competed in badminton at the Australian Transplant Games.


The injured veteran who received the world’s first penis and scrotum transplant

Between 2001 and 2013, almost 1,400 US soldiers returned home from campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with horrific injuries to their genitals and urinary tracts, with over a third of these injuries classified as severe.

One anonymous young soldier lost his genitals and legs and suffered damage to his abdomen in Afghanistan, after stepping on an improvised explosion device in 2010. Eight years later he became the first person in the world to receive a penis and scrotum transplant in a complex 14-hour surgery carried out by 11 surgeons at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA. 

The surgeons donated their time to perform the experimental surgery, not covered by insurance or veterans’ benefits, that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In a poignant twist, the donor family was associated with the military, and said that their anonymous family member would have approved of enhancing the life of a soldier who suffered greatly fighting for his country.

The military veteran has had a good recovery with positive signs of sexual function.


Mental illness takes one life - and another gets a new beginning

Californian man Cameron Underwood suffered devastating injuries to his face when he shot himself in an attempted suicide in June 2016, as he battled depression and alcohol abuse.

On New Year’s Eve of 2017, aspiring filmmaker and writer Will Fisher, 23, died suddenly after a long-term battle with mental illness.

Underwood, who had had reconstructive surgery previously (the bullet destroyed his nose and much of his teeth and lower jaw), had Fisher’s face transplanted in January of 2018. The operation lasted 25 hours and involved 100 medical staff.

"Will and his family made an incredible sacrifice to give back to me what had been lost,” Underwood said, according to Sky News. “I will never forget that.”


If this story raises concerns about mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. For depression, visit Beyond Blue for organisations that can help.


Dying to Live airs on Wednesday, 23 January at 8.35pm on SBS. Stream it any time after broadcast at SBS On Demand.

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