The book I read for France, The Heart, by Maylis de Kerangal and translated by Sam Taylor, left me emotionally drained. It chronicles the twenty-four hours following an automobile accident that leaves a young man brain dead, as doctors race through the steps required to remove his organs and transplant them into the bodies of people who will die without them.
Simon Limbres is nineteen years old, out before dawn to go surfing with two friends. They head for home afterwards, exhausted, in a truck that has only two seatbelts, leaving Simon unsecured. An accident occurs, propelling Simon through the windshield, and he is declared brain dead shortly after he is admitted to the hospital. His internal organs, however, survive intact.
What happens next is a carefully orchestrated procedure that begins with the delicate task of asking Simon’s parents, Sean and Marianne, for permission to remove the organs from their son, who is still warm and breathing, whose heart is still beating. “They’d barely had time to realize their tragedy before they had to decide about organ removal.” The man tasked with having this discussion with them, Thomas Rémige from the Coordinating Committee for Organ and Tissue Removal, understands perfectly the tightrope he must walk. “And here is this young man in a white coat, cautious but committed, determined not to jump the gun, but highly aware of the silent countdown in a corner of his mind, knowing all too well that a body in a state of brain death quickly deteriorates, that time is of the essence – and torn between these two imperatives.”
The book then goes into painstaking detail about the steps that follow the grant of permission for organ removal: searching the database of people needing organs to find those most compatible with Simon’s blood type and tissue characteristics; notifying hospitals treating those potential recipients that organs are available (a liver, two lungs, two kidneys, and a heart – Simon’s mother has refused to let them take her son’s eyes); the sending of surgeons from each of those hospitals to remove and take back the organs they need; the restoration of Simon’s body after the organs have been removed; and the transplanting of the organs into the recipients. In particular, we are introduced to Claire Méjan, the fifty-one-year-old woman who receive Simon’s heart. Of Claire, it is written that “… it disturbs her, the thought of waiting for someone to die so she can have their heart.”
The author is almost clinical in the way she describes the medical procedures involved, but her prose when writing about the people affected is beautiful, even poetic. I was able to read parts of the book with a certain amount of emotional detachment, but in other parts, I would find myself sobbing.
The Heart, with its tragic subject matter, is not the type of book I would normally choose. It’s an extraordinary novel, however, and I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to read it.
As you might imagine, food wasn’t a big factor in The Heart. That didn’t matter, since I had already decided on the French dish I wanted to make before I even started reading the book. In my pre-vegan days, I used to love cassoulet, a dish made with beans and various types of meat. On the International Vegetarian Union (IVU) website, I was excited to find three different recipes for vegan cassoulet, which I didn’t even know was a possibility. The process for making vegan cassoulet was almost as time consuming, and dirtied just as many dishes, as the process for the regular version. I wish I could say it was worth the effort. Don’t get me wrong – it was tasty enough. But in the end, it was basically just beans and veggies. Oh, well…
After reading The Heart, I was determined to find a French organization involved in organ donation outreach to be the recipient of my donation. That was easier said than done. Actually, I found an organization, France ADOT (Fédération des Associations pour le Don d’Organes et des Tissus humains), right away, but since their website is in French, I couldn’t figure out exactly what they do. Fortunately, I found an article in English about an ad campaign they did, which explained that France ADOT is “a federation of associations that work throughout France to inform and raise awareness on organ, tissue and bone marrow donation.”
The ad campaign itself was for the purpose of encouraging the use of organ donor cards. This brought to mind a passage from The Heart, where Thomas Rémige wants to know if Simon would have consented to the removal of his organs, and his mother asks, “How can we know?” Encouraging people to carry organ donor cards alleviates the need for their loved ones to guess what their answer might have been to this painful question.
In case you’re fluent in French, more information about France ADOT is available on their website at https://www.france-adot.org/.
NEXT STOP: GRENADA
(Originally published on March 27, 2019.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.