Registration to become an organ donor spiked starting last weekend as Canadians responded to the news of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash and player Logan Boulet’s decision to sign his donor card.
When he perished as a result of his injuries from the crash, the 21-year-old from Lethbridge, Alberta, saved the lives of six people. The high-profile tragedy has put a spotlight on organ donation and the result has been reflected in the number of people registering to be donors all across the country.
“We’re up more than 100 per cent in the last week,” says James Breckenridge, president and CEO of the Canadian Transplant Society. Especially notable is the five-fold increase in registration by 16- to 25-year-olds, a cohort donor registries usually struggle to get on board because young people assume they’re not going to die for another 50 years or more, he says.
“You really have to commend Logan Boulet for being the hero he is to come forward at 21 and show the world how important it is to become an organ donor.”
If you are among the Canadians who were moved by the Humboldt tragedy and are thinking of registering your wish to be an organ donor, here’s what you need to know, both about signing up and the misconceptions that have put us behind other nations in registering donors.
“In most provinces where you can register, all you need is your health card, your date of birth and about three minutes to go online, pick the organs you want to agree to and you’re done,” says Breckenridge.
Although there’s no one national organ donation registry, the transplant society has all donor registries in one place. From there you can click into the registry of your province and territory and either register online, order a sticker for your health card (in the case of Saskatchewan), or print off a simple form or letter.
Members of the military, who carry a special kind of health card not associated with their province of residence, must fill out an end-of-life directive to give to their superior officer.
The minimum age to register your intention to become an organ donation is as young as 16 in Ontario and 19 in B.C.
Under those ages, parents and guardians can give consent for a child’s organs to be donated, even in infancy. This consent isn’t registered ahead of time but can be agreed upon in the case of a life-ending event.
Your family still makes the final call.
If you’d want others to receive your organs in the event of your untimely death, you’ve got to let your family and friends know. That’s because the final decision still falls to your next of kin, says Breckenridge.
“It takes the families a lot of intestinal fortitude to agree,” he says, pointing to Boulet’s case as an example. “The kid went off to play hockey and the next thing the parents know he’s on life support.”
Since loved ones are faced with the organ donation question in what’s likely the darkest hour of their lives, you’ve got to share your wishes with your friends in addition to your family. Breckenridge says next of kin need others around them to help assure them of your wishes — to say, “Yes, you’re making the right decision.”
In about 15 to 20 per cent of cases, transplant registries lose the organs because the families say no, he says, often because they just don’t feel equipped to make the call.
You don’t have to be in perfect health.
Many people with chronic health conditions believe they aren’t candidates for organ donation, says Breckenridge. That’s simply not the case.
If you’re a diabetic, for instance, your kidneys may not be in perfect condition but your heart and lungs could still save lives, he says.
You can be a donor at any age.
The oldest organ donor was a 90-year-old man who gave a liver.
“He was healthy and they used it,” says Breckenridge.
With parents’ consent, even newborn babies can be organ donors.
You’ll still get top-notch healthcare in the event of critical illness or injury.
Canada is “one of the worst” nations for organ donation in the world, says Breckenridge, with only about 20 per cent of the population registered.
Actual organ donation rates are measured in “deceased donors per million population” — that’s people whose organs have been donated, as opposed to those who have simply registered their intent to do so.
Canada has 18 deceased donors per million, compared to the world’s top donation country, Spain, which has 36 per million.
The biggest myth standing in the way of better donor numbers in Canada is a misguided notion that registering to be a donor could mean doctors won’t work as hard to save you, says Breckenridge.
There’s never a conflict where you’re going to go into a hospital and the first thing you’re going to encounter is a transplant team– James Breckenridge, president and CEO, Canadian Transplant Society
“When you’re admitted to the hospital and you’re close to death, the doctors are doing everything they can in their sworn admission to save your life.
“There’s never a conflict where you’re going to go into a hospital and the first thing you’re going to encounter is a transplant team,” he says. Organ donation is never raised until there is no hope of survival.
It can only proceed after brain death has been established through an extensive procedure where two doctors sign off, and even then, only when the family has agreed, he says. Organs are not harvested until life support has been off for five minutes, ensuring there are no vital signs.
Since many people have good intentions to register as organ donors but simply never get around to doing so, some nations now have “opt-out consent,” where the onus is on people to take action only if they do not want to donate their organs.
While Breckenridge says efforts to bring that kind of policy into place in Canada have not been successful so far, he believes the least we can do is ensure everyone is asked.
“I think it should be mandatory that if you want to renew your health card, you have to answer yes or no. Or we’re never going to get ahead. We can’t be in the dark about what your wishes are and we’re in the dark about 80 per cent of the country.
“Why people don’t become an organ donors, I don’t know. Everybody should. It’s a way to pay it forward.”