Organ Donations: Talk About It

Organ and tissue donation saves lives. Did you know that one donor can save up to 8 lives and enhance as many as 75 more? Organ and/or tissue transplants make an enormous difference to people whose very lives may depend on the transplants.

While surveys say that most of Canadian society supports donation, the reality is that not enough people act and become registered donors. Worse, some of those who do become registered donors do not inform their families of their decision and the reasoning behind it, with an all-too-frequent result that immediate family members decline to permit the donation.

Part of the gap between organ donations from deceased donors and the total needed is made up by living donations of kidneys, lungs, and livers, often by family members.

According to The Organ Donation and Transplant Association of Canada, there were an estimated 4,330 people in Canada on the waiting list for a life saving organ transplant in 2008. A total of 2,083 transplants took place during the year, 1,541 of which were made possible because of just 486 deceased donors. Sadly, 303 people died while waiting for a transplant — nearly one person every day of the year.

Why are there so many people on our waiting lists? Apart from the obvious answer, that too few people have registered as donors, there are other factors which are likely to keep the waiting list growing:

  • Organ transplantation is no longer an experimental process. Transplantation is now considered a normal treatment option for certain diseases.
  • Partly because more people are living longer, more people are eligible for transplantation.
  • The age limits for liver and heart transplants have increased as the process is improved by medical research.
  • The number of people willing to donate organs has not grown much

How to make a donation by province

Donating is easy. Depending on where you live in Canada, you may only need to sign the back of your provincial Health Care Card, or the back of your drivers license. Here is what is required in the provinces and territories:

  • Alberta, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, and Nunavut: sign the back of your provincial Health Care Card.
  • British Columbia and Yukon: join the organ donor registry. Call 1-866-949-0003.
  • Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador: sign the back of your driver’s license.
  • New Brunswick: register with Medicare.
  • Ontario: join the provincial organ donor registry (Trillium Gift of Life Network) run by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, or residents can join the provincial organ donor registry by completing an online form here.
  • Prince Edward Island: get a red heart put on your drivers license and a sticker for your PEI Health Card.
  • Quebec: have a sticker placed on your Health Insurance card.
  • Saskatchewan: get an orange “organ and tissue donor” sticker placed on your Saskatchewan Health Services Card.

Get a Donor Card

It is also a really good idea to get the organ donor card from The Organ Donation and Transplant Association of Canada. This is a PDF file you can either download and print, or you can call the association at 1-866-949-0003 and ask them to mail you a card. There are two parts to the card: one is a notice you should keep in your wallet with your personal identification; the other is a card you can copy and send to family members to let them know your intentions.

Talk to Your Family!

If you choose to be an organ and tissue donor, it is vitally important that you inform your family of your intentions. The law in Canada makes it possible for your family to override your wishes to be an organ and tissue donor at the time of your death — they must be asked, and if they do not understand your choice at a time when they are at the height of their grief, they will tend to say no.

Letting your loved ones know your wishes now, and discussing with them why you want to help others live, will usually help resolve any confusion they may have.

Some facts you may not know:

  • All mainstream religions approve of organ donation and consider it an act of charity.
  • Your age is not an obstacle. The oldest organ donor in Canada so far was over 90 years old; the oldest tissue donor was 102!
  • Illness is not an obstacle: medical professionals will make the decision if you can be a donor at the time of death, after reviewing your medical history.
  • Organ donation does not delay a funeral and it does not prevent an open-casket funeral service.

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