Would you be an organ donor?
WHY does Australia still have one of the lowest rates in the world?
Lynne Coleman and Shane Thomas’s daughter Rose was born with biliary atresia, a degenerative liver condition.
After months in and out of hospital, they were told that, without a liver transplant, Rose’s condition would kill her within a year.
Before undergoing the operation, however, Rose needed to be a sufficient weight in order to survive the procedure itself. Rose was placed onto the transplant list at eight months old and underwent the operation a few months later.
Out of the first 18 months of Rose’s life, Thomas says she “spent 14 months in hospital”.
Rose initially suffered rejection of the new liver and stayed in ICU for seven weeks, which is atypical, but these days Thomas says she’s “practically normal. The further away you move from the time of the transplant, the better your outlook.”
Donor families remain anonymous, explains Thomas, so although they don’t know much about the family who donated the liver, they enjoy receiving and sending letters to them.
“It’s always a strange letter to write because, while it’s reasonably anonymous, it’s quite intimate. Initially they wanted us to know they were happy their child’s organs had helped others, and that knowing that helped with their grief.
"They told us their child always liked to help people, so their decision about organ donation had been a reasonably natural decision to make.”
Research conducted in April for the Organ and Tissue Authority showed that 77 per cent of Australians are generally willing to become organ and tissue donors, and 78 per cent recognise it is important to discuss their donation wishes with the people close to them.
However, less than one in five Australians (17 per cent) surveyed could recall having had a memorable discussion with loved ones about their donation wishes.
Australia’s organ donation rate is one of the lowest in the world.
Last year, there were 11.3 donors per million people (the highest rate, at 34 donors per million people, was in Spain).
A shortage of donors means that about 1700 people are waiting at any one time for a life-saving or life-improving transplant.
Australia has a world-class reputation for successful transplant outcomes, yet the country’s family consent rate is low on the world standard, with just 58 per cent of families giving consent for organ and tissue donation to proceed.
However, Dr Kevin Yuen, WA state medical director for organ and tissue donation organisation DonateLife, points out that only a small number of people die in such a way that they are eligible to be organ donors.
"Basically you need to die of a serious head injury or brain haemorrhage in an ICU, so as you can imagine that is only a small pool of people, about one per cent of deaths in Australia.
"In 2009 there were 247 organ donors across Australia, which resulted in 799 people receiving a transplant – so 799 people received a second chance at life.”
Dr Yuen says a key challenge is to increase Australia’s low family consent rate by encouraging more families to discuss and know each other’s donation wishes.
"Families that know the wishes of the deceased are more likely to consent to organ donation. Many Australians don’t realise that, even if they have registered to be a donor, family consent will always be sought.”
The Australian Organ Donor Register is the only national register for Australians to register their donation decision (the registering of one’s donation wishes on a driver’s licence is only possible in SA and NSW).
The register keeps a record of whether a person wishes to be a donor and the organs and tissues they agree to donate. You do not have to register in order to be a donor.
But regardless of registration, your family will still be asked to give consent, so it’s important they know your wishes.
Dr Jonathan Gillis, NSW state medical director of DonateLife, says there are three common myths about organ donation: that doctors will not save your life if you have indicated that you will be a donor; that the body will be mutilated to take organs; and that one can be too old or sick to donate organs.
“Organ donation is not considered until all efforts have failed to save your life,” says Dr Gillis.
"Organ donation surgery is like any other surgery: done by specialist doctors who treat the donor with dignity and respect, and they stitch and cover the wound as in any surgical procedure. Lastly, many people who think they are not able to donate can, and if they are not medically suitable for organ donation, they’re often suitable for tissue donation.”
Organ donation: the facts
• Forty per cent of Australians do not know the donation wishes of their loved ones.
• Less than one in five Australians (17 per cent) has had memorable discussions about their donation wishes.
• In Australia, just 58 per cent of families give their consent for organ and tissue donation to proceed.
• About 1700 people are on Australian organ transplant waiting lists at any one time.
• On average, people on the transplant list wait between six months and four years.