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The facts and myths of organ donation

April 5, 2019 • read

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The facts and myths of organ donation

Organ donation saves lives, but many Canadians haven’t registered as a donor. Even though 4,600 Canadians are waiting for an organ, only about 21 of us in a million actually become organ donors. This means that far less than half of us who are able to donate, do donate. Education is critical in changing how Canadians approach this crucial medical intervention. So read on to learn more.

Organ donation facts and statistics

  • Spain has the highest organ donation rate at 43.4 people per million
  • Canada comes in at number 19 on the list
  • You can be an organ donor once you reach the age of majority
  • One organ donor can save up to eight lives
  • Don’t think you’re too old; the oldest person in Canada to donate an organ was over 90
  • Two hundred and fifty-six Canadians died waiting for an organ transplant in 2016

How to become an organ donor

According to organ and tissue donation statistics, while 90 percent of Canadians agree with the idea of organ donation, only half of us make the necessary arrangements to do it. And those of us who do register aren’t always disclosing that information to our families. Not sharing your status with your family means that when the time comes to donate, it may not happen. Some countries such as Spain operate on a presumed consent system. This means that they consider everyone to be an organ donor unless they explicitly state otherwise. In Canada, however, we currently have an explicit consent system, meaning that you need to deliberately choose to be a donor. New legislation in Nova Scotia will make the province the first in North America to use a presumed consent system in the next 12-18 months.

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 guide for you to follow the process, as it differs province to province. Unless you are 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 are a registered donor and wish to donate your organs.

What organs can you donate?

Many of us think that we can only be an organ donor if we die, but that isn’t true. There are three ways that you can donate in Canada: after neurological determination of death (also known as being “brain dead”); through donation after circulatory death (which means the patient’s heart has stopped beating); and as a living donor. If you are 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.

As a living organ donor, you can give away certain organs or parts of your organs. Living donors can gift a lobe of their lung, part of their liver, pancreas or intestine, or a kidney. Many who choose to become living donors do so to help a family member or loved one who is sick. Sometimes, unfortunately, they aren’t a match. In these cases, Canadian Blood Services runs a program allowing you to register as a 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.

Tissue donation facts

Organs are not 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, we all have a stake in maintaining the blood supply.

Whether you’re comfortable with becoming an organ donor or not, it’s crucial to learn about the life-saving results that organ donation provides. Death can be a difficult subject, and the idea of organ donation might make you squeamish, 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 to live. So it’s worth spending some time thinking about what you might want for yourself, and speaking to your loved ones about their wishes.

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