Kim Parsons — Submitted photo
Twenty-five people were able to have kidney and liver donations in 2011 through the Organ Procurement Exchange of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Twenty five people’s lives were changed due to the kindness of Atlantic Canadians and their families considering somebody else’s needs at probably their worst time,” said Eastern Health co-ordinator Kim Parsons, adding the experience affords some healing for the donor families.
“It amazes me these donor families are able to think past their own grief and give to somebody else.”
In 2010, nine people received donations through the program.
With improved safety features over the years, fewer people die in accidents, affecting donor rates across the country.
“Organ donation rates fluctuate and there are so many factors like weather,” Parsons said. “Unfortunately our program runs on people who get in a motor vehicle accident or die for some reason.”
But Parsons said Newfoundland has always done well.
Parsons said more families in this province make the decision to donate organs from their loved ones in their worst time.
“(The) Atlantic provinces have generally done better than the Canadian provinces on organ donation,” Parsons said.
Education has been key to raising that awareness, she said.
“We try to educate both professional and the general public and in that way. What we can do then is try to identify anybody who can qualify as a deceased organ donor,” Parsons said.
“The potential of being an organ donor is only about two to five per cent of all deaths that happen. So the biggest challenge we have is ensuring if someone meets this criteria, their family is given the opportunity to donate.”
Parsons encourages people to have the conversation with their families, in case something happens.
“If people have conversations with their families and let their families know what their wishes are, when we approach the family after somebody has been declared legally dead, if they know what their loved one’s wishes were, they are more likely to say yes,” said Parsons, who was a longtime critical care nurse prior to taking the donor co-ordinator’s job.
“Also I think in Newfoundland, everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows somebody somewhere along the line that either they need, needed or has required an organ transplant, so Atlantic Canadians are generous people.”
She said the program has relied on service clubs to get the message out, as well as presentations to high schools and sessions and webinars with health care professionals and support staff.
“The more you do, the more the word gets out there, the more likely you are that people want to hear about it because they just didn’t know,” Parsons said.
Every week, the program receives a list of everybody in Canada who needs a transplant.
“We get a list of organ transplants across Canada and then we get a list of who needs them right away, who will not survive without their transplant in a very short period of time. And so if we have a donor in Newfoundland, well the majority of the organs that are retrieved from a donor in Newfoundland go to an Atlantic Canadian program,” Parsons said.
“If we had somebody in Ontario, a teenager in Ontario who was going to need a heart within the next 48 hours and we had a match, the heart would go to that person.”
Kidneys and livers usually go to the regional program.
The program doesn’t track heart or lung transplant rates because they aren’t performed here — lung transplants are generally done in Ontario and hearts in Halifax.
At any given time, there are 40-70 Newfoundlanders on a waiting list for liver or kidney transplants in this province.
“You may have somebody who is waiting on the list for five years, but if they’ve got a lot of antibodies in their blood, they are not a match. So it’s not always a time frame for how long they can be matched,” Parsons explained.
“We might have somebody who is listed a year and we might get a perfect match for them.”
While Parsons noted people can indicate on their driver’s licence they want to be an organ donor — marked by a red heart — the licence isn’t always available when tragedy strikes.
“The most important thing is that these people have had a conversation with their family or the family can do what they think that person would want to do, because finding the driver’s licence at that point the consent takes place within an ICU (intensive care unit) setting, they don’t have their wallets, their purse. If they are from out of town, nobody knows where the driver’s licence is,” she said.
Confidentiality laws surround organ donation, but recipients and families can exchange notes through the program. The program also contacts families several weeks after transplants take place to let them know how they went.
Organs that can be donated include kidneys, livers, lungs, pancreas and in St. John’s hospitals, corneas.
Parsons is one of three organ donor co-ordinators in the province.