Mark Colvin's personal crisis teaches him Australia is in dire need of organ donors
Sally Jackson | The Australian
IT is a story radio journalist Mark Colvin never wanted to be part of but is in a unique position to tell.
When deteriorating kidney function forced him on to dialysis three weeks ago, the presenter of the ABC's current affairs flagship program PM was suddenly made all too aware of the inadequacies of Australia's organ donation program.
Australia has an organ donation rate of 11 people per million, compared with a world-leading 34 people per million in Spain. The US has recently set a target of 40.
Colvin decided to use his personal plight to draw attention to the issue, to encourage people to register as donors and, crucially, to make their wishes known to their family members.
"It came to my attention that it was really a bit of a scandal about the organ donation rate," he says. "I suggested The 7.30 Report do a story and they said they'd do it if I would be the central figure in it.
"I understand that for a strong story you need somebody who's articulate in the middle of the story, so I decided to do it."
Colvin also wrote about his experience for online opinion websites The Drum and The Punch and broadcast the news through Twitter, where he has more than 6000 followers as @Colvinius.
"There is a traditional journalistic reluctance to be the centre of the story," he says.
"But if I can help to raise the profile, to get people talking about it and to get some pressure on government and health systems, then that's a good thing. We could be doing so much better. I'd like to see us set the same kind of targets that the US is setting now."
Colvin says the response to his story was "overwhelming".
"Enormous numbers of people on Twitter and by email (wrote) to say they'd registered to donate," he says.
"I've not experienced anything like that from a story I've done about other people before."
Colvin's battle with illness began in 1994, when he was reporting on Africa's refugee crisis as a foreign correspondent for ABC TV.
"I was a working reporter, I liked nothing more than going out and seeing things," he says.
"In the refugee camps in Zaire, which were teeming with corpses and people dying of dysentery and malnutrition, I picked up some sort of bug which gave me a stomach upset for a week or two.
"It was never identified, but the problem was that it triggered an auto-immune system disease, a vasculitis called Wegener's Granulomatosis. I was fairly close to death. I went into hospital in November 1994 and didn't come out again until February. I was a foreign correspondent for 20 years on and off (and) it ended my career as a foreign correspondent because I can't really travel any more."
Back in Australia in 1997, he took up the position of presenter of PM, which airs from 6pm to 10pm Monday to Friday on ABC local radio.
"It's the one job that enables me to use my brain and my journalistic skills without necessarily having to move around too much," he says.
"I've had both hips replaced (and) a knee replaced and I have no cartilage in my ankles, so I can't really walk around much any more. I had to have a desk job, and PM is about the best desk job that a broadcast journalist can have in this country."
The average waiting time for a deceased donor kidney is four to seven years.
While Colvin waits, he will receive dialysis in a Sydney hospital for five hours a day, three times a week.
While in the hospital, he works using his iPhone and iPad.
"I'm hoping I can keep on working. I've basically transferred the work I was doing at home to the hospital," he says.
"At the moment it seems to be all right, for the first couple of weeks that I've been doing it."
Meanwhile, he is also waiting for official action he believes could significantly shorten the waiting times for everybody.
"We need a system for national co-ordination of organ donations and transplants, not one implemented in a piecemeal fashion," he says.
"I'll be keeping an eye on it. I'll try to keep on following it up."