Canada's dismal organ-donation rate is beginning to improve, according to a new report that found the number of people whose organs were donated after death climbed 17 per cent in the decade leading up to 2012.
That increase led to a milestone in 2012, when the number of deceased donors surpassed the number of living donors for the first time in at least 10 years – just barely.
Of the 1,079 who gave their organs that year, 540 were deceased donors and 539 were living donors.
The number of deceased donors increased from 514 in 2011, meaning that 26 more people were willing to part with their organs after death in 2012 than in the previous year.
In 2003, there were 421 deceased and 435 living donors.
Canada has struggled for years to bring its deceased organ-donation rate in line with other developed nations.
Spain boasts more than 30 deceased donors per million people. In France, Italy and the United States, the rate is between 20 and 30 per million.
The new report, prepared by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, suggests Canada still has a long way to go, with a rate of 15.5 deceased donors per million in 2012.
But the trend lines are moving in the right direction, something transplant advocates across the country attribute to high-profile public awareness drives and better co-ordination among medical professionals.
"There has been a considerable investment in national partnerships and strategies, which really raise awareness around what needs to be done to help increase deceased donation," said Amber Appleby, provincial operations director for B.C. Transplant, which co-ordinates organ donations in the province.
"I think that's what's having the biggest effect."
B.C. Transplant has installed five in-hospital co-ordinators across the province to guide physicians and families through the process when a potential donor dies, a program it hopes to expand.
In Ontario, the number of hospitals required to notify Trillium Gift of Life Network – which oversees deceased donations in the province – when a patient dies or is about to die grew from 21 in 2006 to 44 in 2012.
All 60 hospitals in the province with critical-care capacity to handle potential organ donors are expected to be part of the network by the end of this year, said Ronnie Gavsie, president and CEO of Trillium Gift of Life Network.
"You can see that increasing the number of hospitals logically would give you a greater number of potential donors," she said.
Trillium also launched an online donor registry in 2011, where Ontarians can make clear their intention to donate and indicate which organs they would be willing to give.
B.C.'s registry, online since 1997, now has more than 890,000 members – about 19 per cent of the population.
Still, the need for organs in Canada continues to outstrip supply. The report showed that, in 2012, 15 people died waiting for a heart; 62 waiting for a liver; 69 waiting for lungs and 84 waiting for a kidney.
The longest waiting list, by far, is for kidneys, which can be given by a living donor. There were 1,358 kidney transplants performed in 2012 – an increase of 14 per cent over 2003 – while 3,428 people languished in line for a new kidney.
Living donors cannot help as many ill people as deceased donors, who can provide up to eight organs.
For recipients like Helen Farinha, the increase in deceased donors is welcome news.
Ms. Farinha, now 62, received a new heart at Toronto General Hospital in 2011, after eight years of progressively debilitating heart failure left her unable to walk more than 10 steps or carry shopping bags.
Three years later, her health is vastly improved and she has an anonymous donor to thank.
"All I know about my donor is that my donor was one of the most generous people ever," she said. "My donor is my hero."