Life

“Could Netflix’s Chambers have a surprise impact on the organ donation register?”

Is Chambers just a harmless television show, or does its storyline of a woman haunted by her donor have more serious consequences? Lung transplant recipient Pippa Kent investigates.

An American teenager receives a heart transplant, and immediately becomes haunted by unexplained visions. Deciding to investigate, the teenager gets closer to uncovering the truth about her donor’s sudden death, but, as she does, she begins to take on some disturbing characteristics from her dead donor.

That’s the plot of Chambers, a new show which hit Netflix recently.

The program is obviously fiction, and TV allows for a great deal of creative licence even when this is not the case. But as someone with personal experience of transplants, I can’t help but wonder what a show like Chambers might have on the transplant community as well as those considering registering as an organ donor. 

I was born with the genetic condition Cystic Fibrosis. Pre-transplant, my lungs declined because of various infections - to the point that they no longer worked well enough to allow me to breathe without extra oxygen. Since receiving a double lung transplant, and thanks to my donor and his family, I can breathe without thinking about it. Now, I live a life unconstricted by my lungs, much fuller than I have been able to for years and excited for the future.

Chambers boasts a host of household names, including Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn, and fans are already clamouring for release of the second series. But what’s the reality behind the fiction? Can people really take on the experiences of their donors, good or bad?

It only takes a quick internet search to read of individuals who believe that the answer is yes. There’s the stories of the pensioner who woke from heart surgery with increased artistic ability  and the kidney recipient who suddenly had a passion for classic literature. Then there’s Claire Sylvia, a heart and lung recipient, who experienced strange food cravings which matched those of her donor. She also had dreams which featured an individual matching his characteristics, despite her knowing nothing about him. In 1997, Sylvia wrote A Change of Heart, which attempted to expand further on the idea of taking on your donor’s characteristics. But is there any reality behind the claims?

The suggestion is that cellular memory, a bit like muscle memory but on a smaller scale, means that memories can be stored from an individual, even after death, in organs other than the brain. This theory would mean that when organs are transplanted so too could these ‘memories’. The basis of Netflix’s Chambers plays on this theory, with Sasha Yazzie, played by Sivan Alyra Rose, experiencing several unexplained feelings and visions linked to the girl whose heart she received.

Sivan Alyra Rose and Uma Thurman in Chambers.
Sivan Alyra Rose and Uma Thurman in Chambers.

Cellular memory isn’t a new idea. It is believed our medieval ancestors might have had similar ideas and tried to preserve memories of the dead in various ways. Eating the heart of a courageous enemy killed in battle would transfer strength, while eating various animal organs associated with virtues such as longevity or sexual prowess was common. Those are practices we have obviously left in the dark ages, so why is it that individuals, and the media, are still attracted by the theories around spiritual or emotional transference of characteristics?

The reality is that there is no conclusive scientific evidence for cellular memory and there are currently no known means by which tissues other than the brain would be capable of storing memories. Although a few small sample studies have taken place historically to try and prove the claims of a few individuals, for every piece of evidence which seems to support the theory there is more evidence disproving it.

The very fact that no further, or more substantial, studies have taken place goes a long way in itself to suggest the unlikelihood of any scientific basis for these claims. That, combined with the fact that there are thousands of people living today globally post transplant, thanks to their donors, who experience no such phenomenon suggests the concept should to be placed firmly in the realm of fiction.  

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For those few individuals who still have doubts, there are also multiple alternative medical explanations to contradict the theory of cellular memory. These include side effects from the medications used in the surgery, a response to the traumatic and life-threatening experience of having an organ transplant or the subconscious influence of information they may have heard or been told about their donor - the ‘hospital grapevine theory’ as its known.

So what if Chambers is unrealistic? It’s another TV series created for entertainment, meant to be viewed as such, not a documentary.

But I do worry about the impact it has in relation to real life organ transplant. Firstly, I’m concerned that people who are in need of a transplant may be dissuaded from considering it as an option for fear of these experiences, or be put undue and increased stress and anxiety during an already difficult time and situation.

Secondly, and probably more concerning, is that people may be hesitant to register as organ donors in the belief, or even fear, that it may in some way mean they might be trapped, spiritually or otherwise, in death within the recipient of their organs.

Sivan Alyra Rose as Sasha in Chambers.
Sivan Alyra Rose as Sasha in Chambers.

While the first is obviously a concern the second is the one I am left worried by. There are currently more than 6,000 people waiting on the transplant list in the UK alone, and the reality is that few organs are actually viable come the time for transplant. We need to do all we can to encourage people to sign up as donors, not give voice to unrealistic theories or beliefs which could do exactly the opposite.

Chambers, based in a mystic New Age pocket of Arizona, and other shows like it will inevitably be watched by many young adults who may (without wanting to patronise in any way) be influenced by the ideas in the series without much consideration of the scientific reality or the impact an acceptance of these views might have in reducing consent to donation.

Organ donation saved my life. I recently celebrated two years with my new lungs. I live every day as myself but conscious that I am only here thanks to someone else. It’s up to me to make the most of that second chance. I know other people deal with this differently; some feel a huge weight to do things they know or believe their donors would have wanted, some have relationships to varying extents with their donor’s family and friends and are influenced by them and their memories and ideas. What is key though, is that we are all alive thanks to the selflessness of our donors.

You can save up to nine lives by being an organ donor, so enjoy Chambers for the fictional series it is, take the background concept with a pinch of salt and don’t forget to register your wishes or talk about organ donation with your family. 

For more information on organ donation, including how to join the donation register, visit the NHS website.

Images: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

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