A long-suffering Canadian woman with a new lease on life, and the Christian activist from Australia who gave up one of his kidneys to save her, say they want to "inspire" the world with their controversial transplant - performed Thursday in Cyprus after a Toronto hospital refused to do the operation last year on ethical grounds.

Ashwyn Falkingham
©Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Ashwin Falkingham

Sandi Sabloff, a Toronto woman in her 50s, and Ashwyn Falkingham, a 23-year-old member of the Jesus Christians - an Australia-based religious group dedicated to organ donation as a supreme act of generosity and faith - spoke with Canwest News Service this weekend while recovering from surgery at a transplant centre in Nicosia.

Sandi Sabloff
Sandi Sabloff
Sabloff praised her donor and the Jesus Christians in general, who give up their kidneys "out of spiritual and religious conviction, and just personal goodwill - because they are saving somebody's life. They are truly saving lives, and that's more than I can say for our government."

Falkingham said: "I just think it's really important to get the message out there that this is something people can do. It's almost like we've become so afraid that there may be money being exchanged or some coercion, that we've forgotten that this is something people can do to help someone out, and that there are many people who would step forward."

After finding each other in 2006 at an Internet site that links kidney patients with potential donors, Sabloff and Falkingham searched for a hospital to carry out the transplant to extend her life and fulfil his dream of giving the ultimate gift.

The surgery, unusual because it involved two strangers rather than two relatives or close friends, had been scheduled for last April at the Toronto General Hospital. But it was called off at the last minute amid concerns raised by Falkingham's mother that the Jesus Christians - dubbed a "kidney cult" by critics of their doctrine of self-sacrifice - might have coerced him into making the donation.

The cancellation left Sabloff "devastated and heartbroken," she said at the time, and prompted a year-long hunt by the retired sales executive and her would-be Good Samaritan for a hospital willing to perform the transplant.

Their quest finally ended at the Paraskevaidion Surgical Transplant Centre in Cyprus, where chief surgeon George Kyriakides conducted the operation on Thursday.

"I'm doing great," Sabloff said on Saturday. "When you have a major operation, you're in pain - and I'm in pain. However, our results are absolutely excellent."

Falkingham, who had the support of his parents for the operation this time, said: "It was a really good match - better than we'd expected. Everything is working out really well. It's an amazing experience."

The Australian added, with a laugh, that: "I'm feeling great, though a lot of that has to do with the painkillers."

Sabloff said she was still "furious" with Toronto hospital officials and the Canadian health care system that her transplant had to be performed overseas.

"This should never have happened," she said.

She added that she and Falkingham are hoping that "we can publicize the fact that organ donation can save many, many lives - and our government at this point in time is sitting on its butt and doing nothing" to encourage live-donor transplants between willing strangers.

"We do not have a national registry - they've talked about it, and they have done nothing," she said. "If we had a national registry we wouldn't be literally throwing organs into the garbage. That is what is truly happening. People die every single day when we can prevent this."

Rejecting the "kidney cult" label that has dogged the Jesus Christians, and describing them as a group that simply "wants to do something good," Sabloff said: "Anybody who knows anything about it knows that you can live a very good life with only one kidney. Your life is minimally affected when you donate a kidney. Because we don't understand well enough what actually it means to help somebody in that way, we automatically think, 'Oh, they must be crazy. Who in the world would do that?' "

She said Falkingham was unfairly "put through the wringer" in Canada.

"If you are not coerced into giving a donation - if you're physically able, you're mentally sound, all of which Ash is - and if there's no monetary exchange. . . then why shouldn't we do this operation, if it's going to save a life?"

Falkingham acknowledged that "it might seem weird that there have been a lot of Jesus Christians who've donated," but he explained that "one of the reasons for that is we're among the few people who have actually seen other people go through the process of donation. And because we've seen that the donor doesn't come back crippled and that it isn't debilitating, that it's a wonderful, positive experience, then that can inspire other people to do the same thing."

Alf Montagu, a Jesus Christians representative who donated a kidney in a U.S. transplant in 2005, is also at the Cyprus hospital assisting Falkingham and Sabloff.

Montagu insisted that Jesus Christians are "people who think through issues and have the courage of their convictions - to try and live it out. There is a rigorous psychological and physical evaluation with each of these (operations)."

He added that critics of the religious group's organ-donation activities and sensational "kidney cult" coverage about alleged coercion or financial motives "is just a distortion that detracts from the real issue, which is real needs and real people. More people who might actually feel inspired to donate could be turned off because of all the distortions."

More than half of the 30 members of the Jesus Christians - from Britain, Australia, Kenya and the United States - have provided a kidney to recipients around the world, the donations often a source of great ethical agonizing.

The group's 61-year-old founder, Dave McKay, gave one of his kidneys in 2003 at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, where a transplant doctor has said there was "much teeth gnashing" among hospital officials before the operation was approved.

After its decision not to go through with the Falkingham-Sabloff transplant last year, Toronto General Hospital president Dr. Bob Bell told Canwest News Service that when transplant decision-makers review any proposed surgery, "it is crucial that we maintain total unanimity" before a donation is approved.

"It's a difficult ethical determination," he said at the time, noting hospital officials must be convinced "the person providing the tissue or organ is doing it purely for altruistic reasons - particularly if they don't know the recipient."