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How organ and tissue donation saves lives

July 25, 2022 • read

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How organ and tissue donation saves lives

Organ donation saves lives, but many Canadians haven’t registered as a donor. Even though 4,300 people are on the organ transplant waiting list in Canada, only about 21 out of one million become organ donors. This means that far less than half of Canadians can donate, and hundreds of those waiting for organs will die. Living organ donation is also an option for many of those listed to prevent death, and education is critical in changing how Canadians approach these crucial medical interventions.

The importance of organ and tissue donation — facts and statistics in Canada

Nobody wants to imagine being ill and having to depend on someone else to save their life. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many Canadians of all ages who require life-saving organ and tissue donations.

Just one organ donor can save up to eight lives, giving those in need a second chance at life. Think about that for a minute. Saving one life is incredible, but donating your organs after death with the potential of saving up to eight people? It’s extraordinary.

The donated organ may be a part of a liver, given to someone who will no longer be in pain and can enjoy life with their family and friends again; a corneal transplant gifted to a grandparent who’s able to see their loved ones and the world; a heart beating on in the body of a child who can run and play and just be a kid again.

Simply put, organ and tissue donation is the greatest gift you can give to a fellow human being in need, and there are many ways to go about donating organs in Canada.

Here are some Canadian organ donation facts and statistics you should know:

  • Canada is #19 on the list of countries with organ donors — far behind countries like Spain and the United States
  • You can be an organ donor once you reach the age of majority
  • Eligibility requirements for organ donation vary — but the age limit for donating organs is vast, with the oldest person in Canada donating an organ at 92
  • Two hundred and seventy-six Canadians died waiting for an organ transplant in 2020 alone

What organs and tissues can be transplanted?

Many people think that they can only be organ donors when they die, but that isn’t true. You can also donate organs while alive. Here are the three ways that you can donate in Canada.

1. As a living donor

As a living donor, you can gift certain organs or parts of your organs and remain healthy. Organs that can be donated include a part of your liver, a kidney, a lobe of your lung, a conjunctival limbal stem cell from your eye, part of your intestine, or part of your pancreas for transplantation. Many people who choose to become living donors do so because they want to help a family member or loved one who’s sick.

There are also living donors who give anonymously to someone in need. In the case of a living liver donation, for example, the odds are that only one in five donor candidates will be a match. That means that you’d need a lot of healthy people to apply in hopes that one person is a match.

When a match is found, however, the liver donation process is incredible. The donor gives a portion of their liver to a recipient. That piece replaces the recipient’s diseased liver and grows, while 90% of the donor’s liver regenerates within the first six to eight weeks.

To become a living donor, you need to know your blood type and fill out a form that shows your health history. If you’re a suitable donor, you’ll be contacted for an introductory appointment and go through an extensive examination of your physical and mental health.

Canadian Blood Services also runs a transplant program that allows you to register as a living donor pair with your loved one. This program lets you and your loved one donate in a pool with other pairs. This way you can donate to someone unknown who is in need, while your loved one can also be matched to a donor.

2. After neurological determination of death (NDD)

Also known as “brain death”, NDD is when the brain has permanently lost all function and a diagnosis of death using neurological criteria has been met. Neurological criteria includes:

  • The brain dying due to a lack of blood flow or oxygen following a severe brain injury or trauma
  • The patient can no longer breathe, move, or think
  • Neurological death is permanent and irreversible

A series of tests are completed to ensure that the patient meets neurological criteria and can provide brain death organ donation. Those who qualify may donate their heart, lungs, pancreas, corneas, or kidneys for transplantation in Canada depending on the condition the organs are in.

3. Through donation after circulatory death (DCD)

When a patient’s heart has stopped beating, they’ve experienced circulatory death. Aside from ensuring donor identification and referral, DCD is responsible for the largest increase in deceased organ donations.

If you’re a registered organ donor and your family gives consent on your behalf, once you are deceased, all healthy organs may be transplanted to those in need who are a match. It’s important to tell your family if you choose to become a registered organ donor so that your wishes are known if you can’t speak for yourself in the case of NDD or DCD.

Tissue donation facts

Organs aren’t the only part of you that you can donate after death. Transplanted tissues are also critical in many different cases. Donated tissue such as skin, tendons, eyes, and even heart valves can make the difference between life and death for those in need. And because there aren’t the same physical restrictions as there are with organs, tissue donors can potentially help dozens of people.

It’s also possible to donate tissue as a living donor. Many have heard of bone marrow transplants, which is one example, but giving blood is also a tissue donation. And given that more than half of Canadians say that either they or a family member has needed blood at some point in their life, everyone has a stake in maintaining the blood supply.

Who can be an organ and tissue donor?

According to organ and tissue donation statistics, while 90 percent of Canadians agree with the idea of organ donation, only half make the necessary arrangements. And those who do register aren’t always disclosing that information to their families.

Not sharing your status with your family means that when the time comes to donate, it may not happen. In some countries such as Spain, they operate on a presumed consent system. This means that everyone is considered to be an organ donor unless they explicitly state otherwise. But there’s an explicit consent system in Canada, which means that you need to deliberately choose to be an organ donor.

You can register to be an organ donor once you reach the age of majority in Canada, but how you do that depends on where you live. The Canadian government provides a handy compendium for you to follow the process, as it differs from province to province.

Unless you’re a living donor, you won’t be there to speak to hospital staff about what you want. This means that after you register, your second step must be to inform family members and loved ones that you’re a registered donor and wish to donate your organs.

What should I expect after donation?

Like any other surgery or medical procedure, once you’ve donated live tissue or organs, there will be a recovery process. You’ll have a team of healthcare providers taking care of you, and pain management will be a big part of your recovery to ensure you’re as comfortable as possible as you heal. There are also risks with any surgical procedure, but transplant teams will discuss this with you beforehand. More often than not, the reward outweighs the risk.

The recovery process varies depending on what you’ve donated, your age, overall health, and more, but here are a few things you may expect for some commonly donated organs:

  • Kidney — donors will usually stay in the hospital between one to three nights. When you go home, you may feel some pain, tenderness, and itching around the incision. You should also avoid any heavy lifting or contact sports for about six weeks.
  • Liver — most donors stay in hospital between five to ten days. There may be pain around the incision, and you’re advised not to do any heavy lifting or activities that require lots of energy until you get clearance from your healthcare team. This may take up to twelve weeks.
  • Lung — donors will spend some time in the hospital recovering. When it’s safe to be released, it may take up to six weeks for your incision to heal. There may be pain around the incision and you should avoid any heavy lifting or intense exercise.

As well, there are often restrictions on driving and travelling for a few weeks after surgery. Your healthcare team will make sure you’re aware of everything, from risks to surgery to recovery.

What happens during organ rejection? Can it be prevented?

Someone in need of an organ goes through the extensive process of trying to find a match, so why does the body reject organ transplants? Organ transplant rejection happens when a recipient’s body thinks the organ is a foreign object and starts attacking it. This can even happen if the organ came from a family member.

For this reason, recipients are put on certain medications to prevent complications, including:

  • Corticosteroids — steroid medicine given before and after surgery to help prevent rejection. The dosage is lowered after a while.
  • Calcineurin inhibitors — immunosuppressants that prevent white blood cells from trying to get rid of the donated organ
  • Antiproliferative agents — medication that prevents the immune system from attacking the donated organ
  • Monoclonal antibodies — antibodies that block the growth of immune cells that cause organ rejection
  • Polyclonal antibodies — antibodies given right after a transplant that briefly diminishes the body’s immune cells to help prevent rejection

If organ rejection begins while on any of these medications, dosages will be adjusted. Recipients also have many follow-up appointments and tests to ensure everything is working properly and that they’re healthy.

Whether you’re comfortable with becoming an organ donor or not, it’s crucial to learn about the life-saving results that organ donation in Canada provides. Death can be a difficult subject, and the idea of organ and tissue donation might be something you’re on the fence about. But many families of donors say that it has helped them immeasurably in the grieving process, to know that organs given by their loved ones have helped others live.

And those who are on the organ transplant waiting list in Canada and can receive a transplant from a living donor would undoubtedly be forever grateful for your sacrifice. Putting yourself in a position to give a part of your body to someone who may die without it and for the both of you to be able to live healthily afterwards is truly incredible.

It’s worth spending some time thinking about what you might want for yourself, how you can help others while you’re still here, and speaking to your loved ones about their wishes.

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