Organ Donation: Vital Facts & Statistics

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When a loved one dies, the feeling of loss is overwhelming. Some families find a measure of comfort in participating in organ and tissue donation, knowing that their loved one saved or drastically improved countless lives.

A single donor can save as many as 8 lives through organ donation, as well as improve the quality of life for up to 75 people through tissue donation.  This ultimate gift also hugely benefits the families of those in need.  Despite these benefits, you may still be wondering if organ and tissue donation is the right choice for you and your family.

We will explain everything you need to know about organ and tissue donation, so that you can make an informed decision.  We will cover how the donation and transplant processes work, who can donate, and the benefits of donating.  We will also discuss common myths that exist about organ donation, and give you facts and statistics.

What is Organ Donation?

Organ donation refers to the removal of an organ from one person for transplantation into another person.  Organs that can be transplanted are the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas, pancreas islet cells, small bowel, and stomach.

An organ transplant is often the only treatment for people with organs that are damaged through injury or disease and who would otherwise die.

What is Tissue Donation?

Tissue donation refers to the removal of various tissues in the body for transplantation into another person’s body.  Tissues that can be transplanted are skin, bone, tendons, amniotic tissue, heart valves, corneas, and sclera (whites of the eyes).

A tissue transplant dramatically changes and improves the quality of life for people of all ages, and allows them to live longer, healthier lives.

How Do Doctors Decide on Who Should Receive the Donor Organ?

Medical specialists in the transplantation field choose recipients to “best match” the available organ given the facts involved in the individual situation.

Factors that they consider when determining the “best match” are: blood group, height, weight, medical urgency (sickest first), length of time on the waiting list, and geographical location (donated organs and tissues can only be kept outside a living body for a short period before donation becomes possible).

How Many Canadians Are in Need of Transplants?

According to Health Canada’s website, 4,500 people are waiting for organ transplants today, and many more are waiting for life-enhancing tissue transplants.

Approximately 2,000 Canadians per year receive an organ transplant.  However, around 250 people die waiting for an organ transplant.

There are over 2,000 Canadians that cannot see properly and are waiting for a cornea transplant.  The cornea is the clear front covering on the surface of the eye.  The wait for a new cornea could be up to 3 years.

According to a poll conducted by the Canadian Transplant Society, 90% of Canadians support organ and tissue donation, but less than 25% of Canadians have made arrangements to donate.  Organ donation rates in Canada are much lower than in many other western countries, including the United States.

One of the factors for why only a fraction of Canadians donate is perhaps a lack of understanding on how to become a donor or of the precise facts about donation.

Who Can Be an Organ & Tissue Donor?

Anyone can be considered as a potential donor.  Age is not a limiting factor.

Potential organ donors must satisfy strict criteria before they are selected for the transplant program:

  • Their organs must be healthy and not damaged by disease or a serious accident;
  • Their blood flow has been maintained (often artificially sustained by machine), thereby keeping their organs viable for transplant.  (This means that people who die outside of hospital cannot be organ donors);
  • Two physicians must declare them as having no brain function (i.e. “brain-dead”), after a series of tests has been conducted.  Brain death is a non-reversible condition and once determined, it is the legal time of death;
  • They must be free from diseases that could potentially be harmful to the recipient (e.g. HIV; Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C); and
  • They must not have a history of engaging in certain high-risk social behaviours (e.g. intravenous drug use).

If medical specialists determine that your loved one does not meet the requirements for organ donation, he or she may still be able to be a tissue donor.

Do You Have Fears About Donation?

There are many common misconceptions related to organ donation.  Hopefully, reading the facts outlined below will alleviate any concerns or fears that you may have.

Do You Worry That Your Loved One is Too Old or Too Sick to Donate?

Age is less important than the quality of the organs and tissues.  Livers have been successfully transplanted from donors in their 80’s, and lungs, liver, and kidneys have been transplanted from donors in their 70’s.

If your love one was in poor health before he or she passed away, he or she might still make a good tissue donor or cornea donor.

Do You Worry That Donors Don’t Receive Aggressive Medical Care?

The first and foremost concern for healthcare professionals caring for your loved one is to do everything possible to save his or her life.  The possibility of donation is only considered when all lifesaving efforts have failed.

In Canada, there is also a safeguard to ensure that organs are not harvested prematurely.  Patients only become potential organ donors if two physicians not affiliated with the transplant program find that the patient is “brain dead,” meaning there is no hope of recovery.  This finding is based on a series of clinical tests.

Do You Worry That Donation Will Delay the Funeral or Prevent Having an Open-Casket?

Choosing to donate organs and tissues will not delay the funeral in most cases, as the body is usually released for the funeral 24 to 48 hours after the death.

Giving an organ or tissue donation should not prevent having an open-casket at the funeral service as great care is taken to reconstruct areas where organs and tissues have been removed.  This is especially important for eye tissue donation.  The eye area is reconstructed so that you cannot tell that surgery has been done.

Do You Worry That Your Religion is Against Organ Donation?

While very few religions are against organ and tissue donation, if you are at all concerned, you should discuss the issue with you own religious leader.

Do You Worry That You Will Pressured to Make a Decision or to Donate?

Medical professionals recognize that organ and tissue donation is a very individual and personal matter.

You and your family are presented with the options of what may be possible.  You are then given the choice to make a decision that feels best for you, your family, and your loved one.  Your choice will be respected.

Do You Worry About How Much Donation Will Cost?

Organ and tissue donation is considered an act of altruistic generosity.  The costs associated with organ and tissue donation are covered by the provincial government and are never passed on to the donor’s family.

By the same token, you should not expect your family to financially profit from a donation.  In fact, selling tissues and organs is illegal in Canada.

Do You Worry that a Decision to Donate Won’t be Kept Confidential?

You and your family may chose to share your decision to donate with extended family and friends, or may chose to keep it confidential.

Do You Worry that You Will Later Regret Your Decision to Donate?

Most families report that they were glad they participated in organ and tissue donation.  Being able to provide the gift of life to another person in an otherwise tragic situation helped ease their grief.

What is Involved in the Donation Process?

If your loved one is in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital, unconscious and on a ventilator (a machine that keeps him or her breathing), two physicians not affiliated with the transplant program will conduct a series of clinical tests to assess brain function. 

If the two physicians declare the patient “brain dead,” (i.e. legally dead), the patient may then be considered for organ donation or tissue donation.

A representative of your province’s transplant program would meet with you and you family.  Together, you would discuss your views on organ and tissue donation.  You would also discuss whether your loved one had indicated their wish to donate, either in conversation, or by signing a donor card or registering (for those provinces with a provincial donation register).

Even if there were no signed donor card or entry in a provincial donation register, you and your family may still be asked for your consent to donation.

If you do consent, you will be asked to answer a medical questionnaire that will help medical specialists determine your loved one’s eligibility to donate.

If your loved one is cleared to be a donor, recipients are identified from local and national waiting lists.  Arrangements are then made with transplant centers across the country.  Each center will send a team to retrieve the required organ and tissue and transport it back to their center.  The surgery is performed with the same respect and care for the body as if it were a live person.

After the organ donation process is complete, tissues might be recovered.  Unlike organs, tissue does not have to be used immediately.

What is the Success Rate of Organ Transplants?

According to Health Canada’s website, transplantation success rates are excellent.  Between 80 and 95% of patients are doing well one year after transplant.

Organ donation not only saves lives, it transforms the quality of lives.  After receiving the gift of organ or tissue donation, transplant recipients are able to lead fulfilling lives.  They are able to work, attend school, play sports, and travel.

For example, a patient with non-functioning kidneys is tied to a dialysis machine and has a diminished quality of life.  A kidney transplant will not only prolong her life, it allows her the freedom to spend her day as she chooses and the energy to fully live her life.

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