When we publish a story like that of baby Carter Pusey, who celebrated Christmas with his family in Sundre after receiving a heart transplant, it gets a lot of attention. Two days after publication, the story remained among the best-read items on our online service at bprda.wpengine.com
But it would be a shame to simply read a good-news story — a life lost and a life saved through organ transplantation — and then let everyone move on with life, unaffected by what the story really means.
One of the reasons that people remark about a story like that of little Carter is that in Canada, they are so rare. Of all the industrial nations, Canada has the lowest rate of organ donation. In Western Canada, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, only 12.6 people per million have signed their organ donor checkoff through their provincial donation programs. That’s not 12.6 per cent, it’s 12.6 per million, or just over a 10th of one per cent. Nationally, it’s better by a meagre level: 14.7 per million.
With donor rates like that, and given the complexities of type matching, one really can regard baby Carter as a small but powerful miracle.
Every province has a different method for people to make their wishes known regarding organ donation.
In Alberta, the default position is no donation. If you do nothing, if you don’t mention to family that if the situation arose, you would approve of someone else making use of your own tissue, you will carry it all to your grave. Along with the 50 or so Albertans who die every year on the waiting list for a transplant.
On the back of your green Alberta Health Care cards are check boxes you can select and a place to sign, where you can indicate what tissues you are willing to donate in the event of your death. Don’t worry about dying young, some of your body parts are still viable for transplantation at age 90.
Alberta also has two centres to advocate for organ donation, and to support families where a member has made a generous decision about their own bodies. The Human Organ Procurement and Exchange program (HOPE) is a next step for donors and families. It will co-ordinate the process and give bereavement support to families where a member has died and the decision had been made to donate.
You can reach them at Foothills Hospital in Calgary at 403-944-8700 or at University Hospital in Edmonton at 780-407-8411.
Thankfully, even with our low donor rates, one body can save or assist many people.
CIHI reports that each donor is potentially capable of providing tissue for up to 80 transplants. That’s 80 sick people willing to give their entire bodies to keep one small part of you alive.
Thus, 30 donors were able to provide tissue for 245 transplants in 2008. At the same time, there were more than 600 people on the waiting lists, each requiring costly medical maintenance.
We could do better to ensure that news stories of miracle transplants become less remarkable.
It has been long suggested that the default position for consent to donate be Yes rather than No, meaning you would have to sign a form indicating your refusal to donate. But all of Canada has been squeamish on that front.
For now, just sign the back of your health card and let family know to inform medical staff of your consent. HOPE can guide you through that.
Or, as one of the comments on our online edition pointed out, you can have a tattoo: “Recycle When Expired” placed somewhere that medical staff can find it.
This shouldn’t be such a novel or rare idea. We shouldn’t have to notice organ transplant stories, really — and that would be a true miracle.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.