Page 601 - Week 02 - Thursday, 17 February 2005

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Organ Donor Week is a reminder of our capacity to help others. It tries to alert every single Australian to his or her ability to give life itself. In fact, one organ donor can save or improve the lives of up to 10 other people. While we would wish that no one be cut down in the prime of their life, sadly it does happen. But I would hope that the loss of life could lead to saving others. With only about a quarter of all Australians on the national organ donation register, the challenge for organ donor week is to encourage the remaining three-quarters of the population to register to become a donor.

In 2003, there were 619 successful transplants from 179 donors, but 140 people on the waiting list died. In 2004, there were 782 successful transplants from 218 donors. With the average waiting time for a heart transplant being two years and for a liver, four years, about a quarter of the people on heart and liver waiting lists die before they receive a donation. Sadly, three people in Australia die every week waiting for an organ transplant. While Australia’s organ donation rate rose from 9.4 donors per million people in 2003 to 11 donors per million people in 2004, compared with the donation rates of 13 in the UK, 22 in America and 34 in Spain, we still have one of the lowest rates in the developed world. We have one of the world’s best transplant records, but one of the world’s worst donation records. That is what organ donation week aims to change.

Although more than five million Australians are registered as donors, the number of successful transplants performed each year is low. Unfortunately, not everyone who is a registered donor will be able to donate their organs when they die. Organs need a continued circulation of blood to keep working and when someone experiences a cardiac death, the blood stops flowing, damaging the organs and making them unfit for transplant. When a person experiences brain death, the heart keeps the blood flowing with the support of a machine so the organs are not damaged and are fit for donation.

Every year, about 1,300 Australians are potential organ donors because they die on life support in hospital. At least half the suitable cases are not on organ donation registers and in about half the cases where emergency department staff ask for permission, relatives say no. It is not surprising that hard-pressed emergency staff do not ask and that grieving relatives do not agree. But it means that we need a change of culture to give more meaningful hope to the hundreds of Australians currently on organ donation lists whose lives hang in the balance. This matter of public importance is about getting people to actually plan ahead so that, if they do have an accident and end up in hospital, it is not left to their relatives to make that hard decision; it has already been made.

Organ donor awareness week helps to educate our community about what being an organ donor actually means and what happens in the event an organ donor dies while on life support in hospital. There are a number of myths surrounding organ donation, but all are completely unfounded. The removal of organs and tissues is treated like any other surgical operation and is performed by highly skilled surgeons. The donor’s body is treated with respect and dignity at all times and is in no way altered physically. However, organ transplantation is a life-changing event for all involved. The donor’s family and friends are coming to terms with the death of a loved one, while recognising that through their death they have given life to several donor recipients. There are many support services available for a donor’s family, including the donor family branch of Transplant Australia, which provides information on social events and activities and professional support and assistance.

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