‘We told doctors, save whatever you can’: how one family coped with the loss of their son

The Abela family lost their beloved son Drew at 20 years of age, but within a few minutes they were upholding his selfless oath to have his organs donated. He saved seven other lives. Now the family is taking the spirit of his actions on a nationwide campaign

Drew Abela, with his sister Roberta
Drew Abela, with his sister Roberta

“I knew immediately how devastating life without Drew, was going to be. I had to find a way to let the world remember him, his honourable gesture and above all, I had to somehow find a way that encourages me to go on,” Sharon Abela says of the loss of her son Andrew, at 20, after suffering a fatal brain haemorrhage – an aneurysm – in 2016.

It was the literal parents’ worst nightmare, the news that no parent would ever want to hear. But in those minutes when the family had learnt there was no hope for Drew, Sharon told the doctors to “try and save whatever you can”.

She was of course referring to her son’s organs, which would go on to save seven other lives. The family had been registered organ donors since the early 1990s, having already discussed the process with their two children. Drew was also a registered donor. In a decision she said “would be in line with his wishes” and reflect her altruism, the Abela family would go on to launch the Life After Drew campaign, to raise awareness on organ donation.

Presently 14,216 people are registered organ donors in Malta, just 3% of the Maltese population – one of the lowest rates in Europe. In late 2016, a national organ donor register was introduced to enlist donors and even specify which organs they would like to donate.

With the slogan ‘Be A Hero, Become A Donor’, the Abela family hopes more support can also be given to families who face such decisions in these tense situations. “Because decisions have to be taken in a very short space of time, the emotional turmoil involved in making the decision is overwhelming, giving the individual little time to process the information. So they need a lot of support during this delicate and vulnerable time,” Sharon said.

Malta has an opt-in system for donors to register their intent, apart from next-of-kin consent for the donation of organs. In 2018, a petition was presented calling for an opt-out organ donation system, claiming that the opt-in system usually has a lower rate of organ donations.

In setting up the campaign, the family approached the Transplant Support Group (TSG), a non- profit organisation founded in 2000 to provide support to recipients of organ or tissue donations, or who are currently waiting for a transplant. Founded by the late Alfred Debattista, the first person to ever receive a heart transplant in Malta, Kenneth Abela said the TSG had a wealth of experience with which to assist them.

Donor family: Sharon, Drew, Roberta and Kenneth Abela
Donor family: Sharon, Drew, Roberta and Kenneth Abela

“Our campaign is to create awareness on the necessity of having registered organ donors, and also to remove certain misconceptions associated with organ donation… we want to give tribute to Drew and so many people like him who as a result of their selfless actions can be considered as modern-day heroes,” Kenneth said.

While the campaign was undoubtedly set up to help people, it also enabled the family to move on after such a loss. “We channelled a tragic event into a positive outcome and every day we remind ourselves of this in order to go on,” Sharon said, having realised the power of solidarity and how it can help others. “We all have a story to tell, and we all learn from each other.”

The Abelas says people who have reservations about organ donation should get informed, referring to suspicions about the system – such as the belief that doctors may not do everything they can to save you, if they know someone is a registered organ donor.

“Organ donation needs to be something that a person does with no reservations whatsoever. People having any doubts should speak to their doctor about such matters, for they can reassure them that the process is a very professional one and that any doctor is bound by his oath to do his utmost to try and save their life. Misconceptions about the treatment of organ donors need to be eradicated in Malta.”  

Currently, the Abela family are developing a viral campaign for social media, with the help of MCAST students who are raising awareness with an exhibition by the fine arts students, performances, documentaries by the journalism department, contributions by the graphic design students, and TV adverts by students of the creative media degree.