What is organ and tissue donation?
Almost everyone can donate organs and tissue. Whether that donation actually happens depends on where and how a person dies, and the condition of their organs and tissue.
While age and medical history will be considered, no one should assume they are too young, old or unhealthy to become a donor. There are really only a few medical conditions (e.g. transmissible diseases such as HIV) which may prevent someone from becoming a donor.
Basically, the organ and tissue transplantation process involves removing organs and tissue from someone who has died, and transplanting them into someone who is usually very ill or dying because their own organ is failing. Recipients can range from young babies to the elderly.
Organs that can be transplanted include: heart, lungs, liver, kidney, intestines, pancreas and pancreas islet.
Tissue that can be transplanted includes: heart valves, heart tissue, bone, veins, tendons, ligaments, skin and parts of the eye.
Why is it so important?
By becoming an organ and tissue donor, you can save and transform people’s lives. One donor can transform the lives of ten or more people.
However, most of us don’t realise how rare it is to die in a way that makes it possible to donate our organs. Only 1% of people die in the specific circumstances required.
A potential organ donor must die in a hospital, on a ventilator, after being declared brain dead or after circulatory death, where the heart and lungs stop working, explains Dr Opdam, national director of the Organ and Tissue Authority.
The criteria is a bit less strict for some eye and tissue donations, and in 2017, more than 9,600 Australians benefited from eye and tissue donations.
Around 1,400 Australians are currently waitlisted for a transplant, while a further 11,000 people are on dialysis and would benefit immensely from a kidney transplant.
In 2011, 146,500 people died in Australia, but only 730 were identified as potential deceased organ donors (from consent and compatibility), and of these, only 337 were actually able to become donors.
What are some of the myths around it?
MYTH: Organ and tissue donation disfigures the body.
FACT: Organ and tissue retrieval is performed by highly specialised surgical teams, and the surgical incision made during the procedure is closed and covered as in any other operation. The donor’s body is treated with respect and the family can still have an open casket viewing.
MYTH: Organ and tissue donation is against my religion.
FACT: all major religions support organ and tissue donation as an act of compassion and generosity. The process can also accommodate religious and cultural end of life requirements.
What is the current situation in Australia compared to other countries?
Australia currently ranks 20th out of 62 countries in donation rates even though we are leading the world in successful donation and transplant outcomes. The availability of organs and tissue continues to be outweighed by the need for transplantation.
Our donation rate has more than doubled in recent years, but we can still do so much more. The national consent rate to donation is currently at 59%, but if our rate reaches 70%, Australia would be in the top ten performing countries.
Only 1 in 3 Australians, and only 8% of Australians aged 18-24, have joined the Australian Organ Donor Register (“Register”). However even though a person can register as an organ donor in Australia, the final decision rests with your family after you die.
Spain is currently the world leader in organ and tissue donation rates. One of the reasons Spain leads the world is not because it has an “opt out” system, in fact, families still get the final say, but because organ and tissue donation is normalised. They talk to their family and friends about it, and it spreads into every aspect of the healthcare system.
In Australia, some advocates are calling for an “opt out” system, where adults are deemed to be consenting donors unless they formally oppose it. Others want to follow the practice adopted in some US jurisdictions where families cannot overrule a person’s decision to donate.
But the best way to improve the consent rate in Australia is to follow in Spain’s footsteps and make sure we are talking to our families about our wishes.
What can you do?
The most important thing you can do is register, and then talk with your family.
STEP 1: Registering to be a donor.
- All you need to join the Register is your Medicare card number.
- The Register is a record of your decision to one day donate your organs and tissue for transplantation to people who need them.
- Joining helps to reassure your family of your wishes because they will be asked to confirm whether you wanted to be a donor before the process can occur.
- Your information is protected and only authorised staff can access the register to confirm your decision.
STEP 2: Talking with your family.
- In Australia, the family is always asked to confirm the decision of their loved one.
- When their loved one is a registered donor, 9 out of 10 agree to donation.
- This drops to 4 out of 10 if the person is not registered and the family is unsure whether they wanted to be a donor.
Link to registration form: https://donatelife.gov.au/register-donor-today
Give someone and their loved ones the gift of life, if it’s the last thing you do.