The kindness of strangers

BESS MANSON
Last updated 14:14 21/09/2013
Bernard Harnett
STACY SQUIRES
BAND AID: Bernard Harnett had lost his faith in humanity until the members of Opshop saved his life.

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Bess Manson finds that goodwill - be it from unknown colleagues, well-known rock bands or other strangers - comes in many forms, from a paid parking ticket to lives saved.

Bernard Harnett was taking it easy on the porch of a Blenheim motel after a day playing in a tennis tournament with his mates on Waitangi weekend last year.

Feeling the aches and pains of his exertions he thought a stroll might help. But after just a few steps he collapsed with a massive heart attack.

"The last thing I remember is taking a walk. The next thing I know, it's the next day and I find out some guys from a rock band have saved my life," the 54-year-old says.

Fortuitously, the lads from Christchurch band Opshop, who did not want to comment, were staying at the unit next door and saw Bernard collapse.

"Jason [Kerrison, the lead singer] and his band were having a quiet drink when I decided to liven things up for them," the Christchurch former rest home manager says.

"They ran over and checked me out, couldn't find a pulse and started giving me CPR. My heart started and stopped twice while they worked on me as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

"The doctor told me the next day that if it wasn't for these guys stepping in, I wouldn't be here today."

Bernard, dad to three girls and stepdad to another, says he was "dumbfounded" when he discovered how the band had acted so quickly and saved his life.

"Up until then I'd had some negative experiences with human nature and I'd really lost my faith in humanity. In that one act, Jason and the boys restored that faith. They not only saved me, they changed the way I look at life."

ONE TOO MANY

It sounded like Dutch courage to dialysis patient Grant O'Brien when a colleague he didn't even know offered him a kidney.

Shelley Taotala made the offer at a work party in December 2011 after a few too many drinks when she learned of his deteriorating condition. Grant told her to come back to him once she had thought about it some more, and when she was sober.

"I do recall waking up the next day and realising I'd offered someone one of my kidneys, but to me it was still simple: I had one I didn't need and he needed one, so why wouldn't I give one away?" the 31-year-old says.

Shelley's mother burst into tears when she learned of her daughter's altruistic intentions.

"At first she was worried about me, but after I talked her through it she was so proud."

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Shelley, a social worker at Waikato Hospital, went through almost a year of assessments before she was approved as a donor for 57-year-old Grant. As well as myriad medical tests, she was given a psychological evaluation. All the way through she was given the opportunity to opt out. But for Shelley that was never an option. Shelley was hugely relieved when she was finally approved to be Grant's donor.

During the year of waiting, they had become close. "We'd meet for coffee and talk about our lives, where we had come from, what we wanted to do with our futures. I guess I wanted to know he was going to do good things with my kidney. It became quite an intense relationship.

"I was so relieved when we discovered we could go ahead with the operation. Grant was going to be OK. He would live."

Far from feeling nervous on the day of the operation, Shelley says she felt more excitement. "I had this amazing feeling that I was about to do the best thing I was ever going to do in my life. I was going to save a life."

Despite the pain she endured when she came round from the transplant, she was rewarded with a visit from a healthy looking Grant.

"Grant came in looking radiant. I had this incredible moment where I saw life in him when only a day before he had been facing death. It's difficult to put into words how overwhelming it was to see him so beautiful and healthy. I'll never have another moment like that in my life. Grant feels like a brother to me now. We'll be connected forever."

Altruistic organ donation is life-changing not only for the recipient but also for the donor, Shelley says.

"You are part of saving someone's life. Nothing is better than that. Giving one of my kidneys has given me a new view on life. I appreciate life more now. I see how fragile it is. I also see how much we can help others. How it is in us to save a life."

Grant says he never really believed true altruism existed until he met Shelley.

"I was on dialysis for 87 hours a week and had no quality of life and I was deteriorating. If I had not had a transplant, I wouldn't be here today. Shelley gave me the ultimate gift of life."

All throughout the assessment process he tried not to get his hopes up. Fortunately, there were no medical obstacles. And Shelley never wavered for a moment.

"We had an agreement that whoever was up first after the operation would visit the other. I felt great and went to her bedside. When I saw her in terrible pain I was really worried, but she just embraced me and told me not to worry. That was Shelley all the way along this process. That's her altruistic nature."

Grant found out later the extent of Shelley's generosity when he discovered she had told the surgeon she wanted to donate her healthier kidney because one had a tiny kidney stone in it.

"The surgeon refused and I would have too if I'd known. But that's the utter selfless nature of Shelley, my lifesaver."

THE GIFT OF LIFE

Janine Boult always wanted to be a mum. It's just that she ran out of time.

Meeting someone at 39 and having a conversation about starting a family puts a bit of a damper on a new relationship.

"I thought I'd meet the right person to have a child with by my late 30s but eventually I realised it wasn't going to happen," Janine, now 44, says.

"I turned 39 and suddenly I was looking at this milestone of 40 approaching so I decided to take matters into my own hands and started looking at the prospect of using a sperm donor."

The Aucklander, who is studying early childhood education, discovered it wasn't going to be easy. There was a long waiting list for a sperm donor. She was disadvantaged further because donors can choose not to have their sperm go to a single mother.

"The donor clinic told me straight, 'You don't really have time to wait. You should go looking for your own sperm donor.'

"I had a few offers from friends of friends but they all fell through in the end. Eventually I went on the NZ Surrogacy website, which also has egg and sperm donor information.

"I connected with a couple who were having a child through a surrogate. They wanted to become a sperm donor couple to give something back for the kindness they had received from their surrogate."

After a series of emails, Upper Hutt couple Mark Snow and Bernice van Gils offered sperm to Janine.

"I was so grateful, I just cried. It's an incredible thing to know that there was someone willing to give a part of themselves to enable me to become a parent. I felt so lucky that they chose to give a gift of life - literally - to me."

After four attempts at intra-uterine insemination through Fertility Associates, Janine became pregnant. Bernice and Mark, who she still had not met face to face, were the first to know.

She kept them abreast of all her developments during the pregnancy and on October 4, 2011, Evelyn was born.

"The moment she was born, I felt as if my life had begun. She was the ultimate gift from people I'd never met. I feel absolutely blessed every day," says Janine.

Bernice and Mark left it up to Janine to decide how much involvement, if any, they would have with Evelyn, or Evie, as they call her. Janine knew she wanted Evie to know where she came from and is completely open with her about who her "sperm parents" are.

They all met when Evie was six months old.

"It felt like I was meeting old friends. We just clicked," Janine says. "These amazing people helped me create a life and I am forever grateful."

Bernice and Mark, who were unable to conceive together, say donating sperm to help someone else who was struggling to have a child was an easy choice for them.

"We know the magnitude of needing help to have children," 43-year-old Bernice says. "We wanted to give something back to someone else who was struggling, and we decided sperm donation was the best way to do that."

The couple, who now have two children by surrogacy, say they wanted to be known donors, meaning the child would have the option to make contact if they wished.

"We also wanted a friendship with the recipient."

They immediately warmed to Janine when they met online.

"She had not met Mr Perfect and wanted so much to have a child. She was ready. We were really touched by her plight. It didn't matter to us that we had not met her. It was just the right thing to do for her and for us. It didn't matter that she was going to be single. She is an amazing person and we wanted to help her."

Mark, a 45-year-old senior business adviser at the Corrections Department, says they knew there were far more people in need of sperm than there was sperm available, so it was good to know they were able to help someone.

"But there's no huge ego trip or anything like that, just a sense of satisfaction that someone's benefited in some way from what we've done."

Mark feared it might be a bit odd actually meeting Janine, and Evie in particular, but he needn't have worried.

"It's very much like meeting any friend who'd had a baby, who'd loved and revelled in that baby - that is always a beautiful thing. I didn't feel any huge attachment, and certainly no sense of possessiveness or belonging.

"It's my belief that we are here to be guardians and educators of our children. The bonds are formed of love and nurture. Evie was so happy, Janine was so happy, and Janine and her family created that, not us."

JUST THE TICKET

Nicole Burt has always had an inherent belief that people are good. But that belief is often shaken reading about the terrible things that go on every day. "It's easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of the world."

But an act of kindness by strangers in Wellington one evening in July reinforced that core belief, that humanity is on the right track.

The 21-year-old law and political science student parked her car on Cuba St at 7.30pm and went to meet a friend for dinner. She did not bother feeding the meter, forgetting that parking was not free till after 8pm on a Friday.

When she came back to her car at 9.30pm she saw a ticket under the windscreen wiper.

"I took out the ticket and then discovered $40 in cash. Just then three people rushed out of the restaurant I was parked beside and told me they'd seen my car get ticketed and decided to do something about it to help me out."

Three diners cobbled together a few dollars then asked passers-by outside the restaurant if they would like to contribute to the parking fine.

"I was shocked that these people - complete strangers - would do something so kind.

"I told them I didn't know how to thank them and they just told me to go and have a good night. Perhaps pay it forward some time.

"That act really confirmed my belief that there is so much good in the world. It made me focus on what is good and what we can do for one another and how we can make the world a better place."

Nicole has since paid it forward. In the supermarket last month she bought a $50 voucher, popped it in an envelope with a note explaining what had happened to her and gave it to a random shopper.

"In my letter, all I asked in return was for her to do something good for someone else, not necessarily anything that cost money but something that would make a difference to someone.

"Those people who paid my parking ticket gave me more than just $40, they made me want to be a better person."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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