Save a Life (or 8): How to be a Blood, Tissue or Organ Donor

Guest post by Dr. Amita Dayal, a rural family and ER physician with a focus on palliative care.

A quiet emergency room shift is interrupted by paramedics announcing the imminent arrival of a 56 year-old male in cardiac arrest. Upon arrival, the patient has no vital signs; CPR is ongoing. After 25 minutes of resuscitation efforts, sadly, he does not survive. His family expresses a desire to donate any usable tissues and organs, and even feel some comfort in the fact that his death may benefit someone in need.

A 42 year-old married mother of two is diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease. The only cure is ultimate lung transplantation. Will there be available treatment for her when she needs it? Will she suffer waiting for an organ donor? Will her family?

As an emergency room physician, I’ve learned how to assess potential patients for donor eligibility in a matter of minutes — and how to discuss these delicate situations with families. In the relatively calm atmosphere of my family practice, however, there simply isn’t the same focus on discussing organ donation. I have come to realize that this is a significant gap that should be addressed.

Every year in Canada, over 2000 people undergo an organ transplant and a whopping 4000 are currently waiting for transplant. Despite those stats, Canada still lags behind other countries when it comes to numbers of transplants completed annually. And while more than 90% of Canadians approve of organ donation, only 51% have made the decision to donate.

Doctors help families make split-second decisions in the emergency room about whether their loved one should donate. Making the call usually involves assuming what they would want, and guessing in a moment of distress. This is because most organs need to be used within hours after death in order to remain suitable for transplantation. Make the decision while you have time, forethought, and input from your family; don’t wait for the choice to be out of your hands.

Here are four things to consider about organ donation.

1. You Can Donate Now and Save Lives

You don’t have to wait for dire circumstances to make a difference — you can donate blood, bone marrow, or certain organs.

First off, donating blood products is an incredible act of kindness and generosity. The victim of a serious car crash can require blood products from up to 50 donors to survive. Giving blood is easy, relatively painless (and you get a cookie after). To review the eligibility criteria and find clinics near you, simply go to Canadian Blood Services or call 1-888-2DONATE.

If you’re between the ages of 17 and 35, you can register to become either a peripheral or bone marrow stem cell donor, and these vital cells you donate can help people combat devastating diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma and aplastic anemia. Registration involves a cheek swab and an informed consent form. If you are a match, which could happen years later, your stem cells are harvested through a blood draw (from your arm), or from bone near your hip, provided you are deemed healthy and fit to donate.

2. Your Organs Can Save Up to 8 Lives

Traditionally, organs and tissues are transplanted from a deceased donor into the recipient. If you are considering donating your organs or tissues at the time of your death, it is important to realize what a tremendous gift this can be. One organ donor can benefit more than 75 people and save up to eight lives — kidney and liver donations save the lives of those suffering from childhood or adult-onset disease, skin can transform the lives of burn victims, corneas can restore sight, heart valves can repair a child’s heart.

3. Registration is Simple

Even if you have good intentions, this alone is not enough. Formally registering yourself as a donor now is a key step in ensuring your wishes are followed. Most provinces and territories have a registry process that be can easily accessed online, such as the Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN) in Ontario.

4. It Gives Your Family Peace of Mind

Although the registration process is important, it is equally vital that you talk to your family members about your intentions. Start by having a discussion with your loved ones, let them know how your act of kindness can save others, and drive home how important this is to you. Having these discussions with your family in advance is key — I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it is for family members to make or accept decisions about organ donation in emergency situations.

Although these can be difficult conversations to have, it can mean the difference between life and death for someone else’s loved one. And one day, another person’s donation might save the life of someone close to you.

Have the conversation, register now, and save a life.

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