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Meet the British Canadian soccer player who plays professional sport after heart transplant

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Abu Dhabi: A multi-organ transplant recipient who has become a global organ donation advocate has said that the UAE has the potential to become a role model in the field.

Simon Keith, 57, a British Canadian soccer player who has undergone two heart transplants and a kidney transplant, praised the vision of the UAE leadership during a recent visit, and urged residents to register as donors on the UAE’s Hayat organ donor registry.

“An organ donation is indeed the greatest gift one human can give to another. The UAE is now at a crossroads in its journey [to become an organ transplant hub], and with the right support and resources being allocated, it can become a shining light in organ donation. The country’s leadership has shown its ability to encourage this kind of inclusiveness and harmony,” Keith told Gulf News.

Setting positive examples

He was recently in the UAE during the three-day International Conference for Initiatives on Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation, which saw global experts gather in Abu Dhabi earlier this month to discuss challenges and opportunities in the sector.

Keith was himself representing the Simon Keith Foundation in order to raise awareness about organ donation, and hailed the example set by Abdullah Al Hamed, chairman of Abu Dhabi health regulator, the Department of Health (DoH), who himself is registered as an organ donor on Hayat — the UAE’s National Program for Organ Donation and Transplantation at its launch during the organ donation conference.

“Public education is extremely important [when setting up an organ transplant system]and what Al Hamed did was incredibly important,” Keith said.

Keith is famous for being the first athlete to play a professional sport after a heart transplant

Life-saving generosity

Looking back on his journey, Keith, who is famous for being the first athlete to play a professional sport after a heart transplant, explained how the generosity of other human beings had given him another chance at life.

“I was 19 when I contracted cardiomyopathy, and there was a risk of my heart failing completely. I received a heart transplant, coincidentally from a 17-year-old who had suffered a brain aneurysm while playing soccer. I was a very young man then, and went on with my life [without thinking too much about what I had received]. But in 2011, 25 years after I received the donation, I traveled back to Wales to meet the donor’s father, and talking to him stirred something in me,” Keith said.

Simon Keith Foundation

Keith then went on to launch the Simon Keith Foundation, which is dedicated to increasing organ donor awareness, and which has done valuable work to strengthen organ transplantation systems, particularly in the US states of Nevada and Ohio.

In 2019, Keith received his second heart, and a kidney, after his heart function deteriorated and he ended up on dialysis. This time, the donor was a 54-year-old who had passed away in a vehicle accident. Later that year, Keith visited the UAE to support the country’s organ donation efforts.

UAE milestones

The UAE has seen multiple organ transplantations since the first kidney transplant was carried out between related living donors in 1985. In 2016, the nation defined brain death by presidential decree, paving the way for deceased donor transplantations. Since then, it has seen 109 deceased organ donors, whose organs have saved the lives of more than 400 patients in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

As announced by Abu Dhabi public health provider, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha) in 2019, the UAE has an average organ donation rate of 3.9 for every deceased donor, higher than the global average rate of 3.5 per deceased donor. It is also one of only two countries in the Gulf, other than Saudi Arabia, to enable organ donation and transplantation.

Abu Dhabi Community Campaign

Elaborating on the momentous journey the UAE is currently pursuing, Keith stressed the need for setting an example in order to encourage organ donation among the population. In addition to Al Hamed, a number of senior DoH officials, including undersecretary Dr. Jamal Al Kaabi, have announced their registration as organ donors to set a positive example for the community. The effort is part of the Abu Dhabi Community Campaign to support Hayat, which encourages residents to register as organ and tissue donors.

Protecting organs

Keith, who has lived the majority of his life with his second heart, urged people to follow these examples in order to save lives.

Asked what people can do on an individual basis to reduce the burden on organ transplantation systems, Keith urged healthier lifestyle choices.

“We also have a role to play in protecting our organs, and this is determined by the food we eat, and the choices we make,” he said.

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