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Vital Bonds brings viewers inside Canada’s busiest transplant centre putting a human face on the country’s organ donation crisis. (CBC)
Vital Bonds brings viewers inside Canada’s busiest transplant centre putting a human face on the country’s organ donation crisis. (CBC)

John Doyle: What does it mean to give the gift of life? Add to ...

In Denys Arcand’s wonderful movie Jesus of Montreal, an actor, Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), increasingly comes to resemble Jesus during a production of the Passion Play. Much of Arcand’s witty and sensitive film is a commentary about the gulf between the true message of Jesus and how it is interpreted by the church today.

In the end, Daniel is injured and taken to a hospital. There are attempts to revive him, but Daniel is pronounced brain-dead. A doctor asks for consent of his friends to take Daniel’s organs for donation. And Daniel’s organs are duly donated to other patients. In allegorical terms, the act of donation is roughly equated with the Resurrection of Jesus. In broader terms, the final act is about the beauty of giving life to others.

Here’s the thing: Canada’s organ-donation rate is among the lowest in the industrialized world.

Vital Bonds (Thursday, CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things) brings viewers inside Canada’s busiest transplant centre, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. In this program, there is extraordinary access to surgeries and intensive-care units, and viewers see the reality of what ensues when human organs are donated. There is a very powerful scene of a family trying to cope with the imminent loss of their 28-year old son, and making the difficult decision to donate.

Although the program is about medicine and science, it has some very tender stories of children being given life after an organ transplant. In the main, it is a plea for the importance of organ donation. It puts a human face on the country’s organ-donation crisis and tries to answer the question, “What does it really mean to give the gift of life?”

The program, directed by Niobe Thompson, is unflinching in its coverage of medical procedures. We see a new heart go into a baby and the doctor comments, “it’s a good heart. It’s just that it came from a long way away. It was in that bucket for about five and a half hours.” We see a family praying tearfully by the bedside of Matthew, that 28-year-old man, who has serious brain damage.

A doctor tests repeatedly for signs of life in the young man’s brain. The circumstance is terribly fraught. Then the doctor has to raise the issue of organ and tissue donation. A surgeon explains to us, the viewers, that many people die while on the list for a transplant. In fact, more than 4,500 Canadians are waiting for kidneys. Every day, four of them die.

There is a side trip in the program into the revolutionary area of organs being developed from stem cells. While an artificial organ can’t be built, technology is allowing rapid advances in other areas. That area of research hasn’t reached the clinical-trials stage and the advance, when it comes, will be too late for many patients.

Meanwhile, the organ and tissue donation process is explained to Matthew’s family. His mother takes it very hard, and she balks at the tissue donation. Then a surgical team must ready the young man’s body to harvest his organs immediately. As his body is moved into surgery, his distraught mother says, “Go, Matthew. Go save some lives.”

And here are some staggering statistics: 90 per cent of Canadians support organ donation in Canada, but only 25 per cent have registered to donate.

Arcand’s powerful movie had deep and abiding resonance for anyone who has seen it, for good reason.

Clearly, as Vital Bonds illustrates, how the movie ends needs to be recalled with some force.

Also airing Thursday

The Great Indoors (CBS, Global, 8:30 p.m.) is one of the first hits of this new TV season … to my surprise, actually. In the sitcom, Joel McHale plays Jack, a rugged fortysomething type with a big reputation for writing about his exotic travels for a magazine called Outdoor Limits.

Somehow, the digital revolution passed him by and now he’s brought in to work on the web-only version of the magazine.

The staff are mostly tech-genius twentysomethings. Jack laughs at their selfie and texting preoccupations. They mock his old-school, clueless attitude.

That’s it.

If you want to figure out why it’s a hit, go ahead and check it out. I really must do that, too.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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