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Craig Johnston, organ and tissue donation co-ordinator with Trillium Gift of Life Network carries blood samples from a dying patient to match organ transplants with recipients at Sunnybrook Critical Care Unit in Toronto. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Craig Johnston, organ and tissue donation co-ordinator with Trillium Gift of Life Network carries blood samples from a dying patient to match organ transplants with recipients at Sunnybrook Critical Care Unit in Toronto. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

EMILE THERIEN

When organ donation relies on Facebook, something is wrong Add to ...

That some Canadians are turning to social media in search of donors indicates the troubled state of organ donation in this country. The deceased donation rate in Canada, according to experts, is half that of those countries with the best rates, including Australia, the United States and Spain. The U.S. and Spain have 30 to 32 donors for every million people compared to 16 for every million people in Canada.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Health, organ donation rates in the province leave much to be desired. That despite the fact that organization has made significant efforts to increase the number of donors in Ontario. The reality is that only 22 per cent of Ontarians have registered their consent to organ and tissue donation, which is very disconcerting and disturbing. And in some of the province’s biggest communities, the rates are even lower. Ontario’s situation mirrors that of other provinces.

There’s also a strong business case for transplantation. In Ontario, on Dec. 14, 2013, 1,523 patients were on the waiting list for an organ donation. From those, more than 70 per cent needed a kidney, followed by lung, heart, kidney-pancreas, and pancreas. At the end of 2011, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, there were 23,188 patients on dialysis in Canada. Of these, 18,244 were on institution-based hemodialysis. The cost to keep one patient on hemodialysis is more than $70,000 a year, which works out to well over $1-billion nationally. This is a huge cost to our health care system, especially at a time when the system is so financially challenged. According to Trillium Gift of life Network, the one-time cost for a kidney transplant is $23,000 plus $6,000 a year to maintain the transplant. Over a five-year period, a kidney transplant costs almost $250,000 less per patient than dialysis, while, in the process, improving the quality of life. Need more be said?

Our beloved daughter, Sarah Beth, but 32 years old, died of sudden cardiac arrest at The Ottawa Hospital on June 17, 2006. Her kidneys were taken and transplanted into two individuals who we understand are now living full, healthy lives. Her corneas were also transplanted in two females allowing both to regain full sight.

The primary motive for becoming an organ donor is to help someone else. One donor’s generosity can save the lives of up to eight people and improve the lives of 75 others.

Transplantation is an important medical procedure. It is viewed by the majority of Canadians as a necessary and important part of our health care system; most expect and hope it will be available to them and their loved ones should the need arise. That said, in Canada there is a large gap between popular support for organ transplantation (more than 95 per cent) and willingness to donate (50-60 per cent).

Some claim that Canada’s low donation rate is attributable to the belief that donation goes against one’s religious beliefs. For the record, the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Greek Orthodox faiths encourage donations. All four major denominations of Judaism support and encourage organ and tissue donation. Islam permits organ transplant as a priority in saving lives. Buddhism has no official position on organ donation but considers it a matter of choice, while Sikhism supports a positive stand.

“Although everyone of us has the potential to be an organ and/or tissue donor, on average a very small percentage of hospital deaths occur in circumstances that will permit donation,” says Dr. Sonny Dhanani, chief medical officer of donation for Trillium Gift of Life Network, and pediatric intensivist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. “It is absolutely critical that in every single situation where donation may be possible, family members are offered the opportunity to honour the wishes of their loved one,” Dr. Dhanani said.

It can be a difficult conversation, but it is incumbent on Canadians to educate themselves about organ and tissue donation and talk with their families and friends about their wishes and concerns. Public education and awareness are key. Becoming an organ and tissue donor is more than an act charity; simply put, it is the right thing to do. And it is a legacy almost anyone can leave.

Across the country, more than 4,000 people are waiting for transplants. Many are children. In 2011, 2,124 transplants were performed in Canada while 265 Canadians died while waiting.

Governments, advocates, and the medical community can only do so much. It is time for that many more Canadians to step up to the plate and do the right thing to help solve this challenge.

Emile Therien is a public health and safety advocate and past president of the Canada Safety Council

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