Swine flu has been given temporary respite from medical debate, dampened down with the news that Gareth Anderson, a 19 year old Irish man suffering from liver failure following a weekend of binge drinking, is to be moved from Ulster to a London hospital for closer monitoring. Gareth has been refused a transplant on the grounds that patients must be alcohol-free for six months beforehand. Given that his official prognosis is that he may only have weeks left to live, Gareth has very little chance of sweating out the required period of abstinence and becoming eligible for the list. In short, if the rules aren’t relaxed, and he is given a chance for suitable donor to be found, he’s probably going to die.
So where does Britain stand on this one? It’s a moral quagmire that everybody seems reluctant to set foot on. Even Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health, Michael McGimpsey, has refused to bow to the pressure to skip that particular page in the rule book, and met questions with a rather watery response.
"It's very much a matter for clinicians, I do not intervene, I am merely a politician.” (BBC News 20/08/09)
The frequency and heaviness of Gareth’s drinking is still somewhat unclear. His father is running the campaign to over-turn the ruling, and parents are rarely privvy to the full extent of their children’s indulgences. Even if they are, they are hardly likely to turn the whole truth over to the public for perusal.
So the official spin is that he only drank socially, and in similar amounts to his friends. Now that binge drinking seems to have become something of a modern-day rite of passage for so many, this may not be condonable, but it is to an extent, understandable. Gareth, it seems, hadn’t waged the kind of ceaseless campaign of abuse on his body that usually results in organ failure, and as confirmed by liver specialist Dr Chris Record of Newcastle General Hospital, his is an unusual case:
"We're not usually talking about 19-year-olds when we're applying this rule because most patients who develop liver failure from alcohol have been drinking heavily for more than 10 years because this is how long it takes for serious live damage to develop," (BBC News 20/08/09)
Gareth is far from blameless, but he was unaware that his system wasn’t going to put it all down to youthful indulgence and forgive him. A chance is all that’s really on offer here anyway, a new liver isn’t something you can just place an order for, and waiting lists come with priorities, some undoubtedly a good deal more pressing.
What he’s been up to isn’t especially sensible and far from admirable, but it is generally considered, at least amongst most of his peers, normal. Whether it is in fact, normal to base your reputation, your weekends and your ability to function socially around alcohol, is a separate issue. And one he surely doesn’t deserve to be made a poster boy for by dieing?