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LETTER: Sign an organ donation card and talk to your loved ones

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Back in 2006, I wrote a piece for The Telegram. It was entitled “A Letter to a Dead Man; Organ donation affects the overall health of Canadians,” and it reflected on the twentieth anniversary of my then kidney transplant. 

It was a reflective and celebratory piece.  It outlined how grateful I felt towards the individual whose decision to be an organ donor had impacted my life in ways that to some might just be everyday to some, but that I still ponder today.

I was able to travel the globe, to Africa, Europe, and Nicaragua — I had completed graduate school, and felt the energy of health flowing through my veins. I felt immense gratitude then, and I still do today.

I still feel gratitude for those 20 years and for organ donors who save lives because they made the decision to sign a donor card and to let their loved ones know.

I continue to feel the awe of how many lives can be touched by a single donor — eight lives can be saved and extended, and dozens improved through cornea and tissue donation. The national paired-exchange program almost miraculously matches live donors from various corners of our nation. The act of organ donation continues to move me and impress me as a life-saving choice that is at the tip of our fingers, a signature and a conversation away. Most would agree with me, over 90 per cent of Canadians in fact believe that organ donation is a good thing; it saves and extends lives, it reduces healthcare costs, and is an arguably straightforward decision.

Or is it? So why then do only 20 per cent of Canadians actually go through the motions to sign donor cards and relay their wishes to their loved ones?

In fact, Canada holds some of the worst organ donation statistics globally; coming in last in global statistics for deceased and live-donor kidney, liver, and heart transplants in 2017 (GOTD, 2017). 

With rates like these, Canadians are actually dying as they await organs because small donor pools do not meet the national demands.  Over 40 per cent of waitlists are people awaiting kidneys, who instead rely on regular dialysis treatments three to four times weekly, at a minimal cost of $60,000 to $110,000 per patient per year, depending on the region. Annual national costs for dialysis alone is in the billions, and with our aging populace, this figure will only grow over time. Whether through informed consent policy or other means, donor pools simply have to increase.

Ten years ago, in 2009, my kidney failed, and I returned to relying on regular dialysis treatments every other day as a means of replacing my kidney function; that’s over 1,800 treatments, and 7,300 hours of waking time attached to a dialysis machine. Using conservative estimates based on 2016 figures, I have cost our health system somewhere in the vicinity of $600,000 to $1 million, and that doesn’t count hospitalizations.

In December of 2018, one of my siblings was added to the waitlist for a heart and now waits in Ottawa for a call because Newfoundland doesn’t have the capacity for transplantation. 

A heart.

He’s been told to expect a minimum of a year’s wait. I doubt our family is the only one with two members awaiting an organ transplant, but his experience can’t help but drive this issue home to my family’s front door and in many ways pushes me to write this call to action.  Many Canadians find ways to adapt to life on dialysis; but awaiting a heart is an altogether different matter.

March in national National Kidney Month. In the past I’ve honoured it because of my own experience of transplantation and gratitude for the one donor who made the difference for 23 years of my life. I’ve used it as a time to permit myself to unabashedly ask you to make your wishes known.

Today I do the same, but the playing ground has shifted beyond myself. 

Sign.

Tell your family.

Become a blood and tissue donor. https://blood.ca/en/organs-tissues

Leah Lewis

St. John’s

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