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Give the gift of life

May 06, 2009


Organ donation has changed the lives of thousands of Canadians - like Karen Venables and her family.

Venables, a unit co-ordinator for Emergency Services at the Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary, lost her 18-year-old son, Devin, to an act of violence in November 2002.

Devin's family made the decision to donate his organs as a way to help others through a tragic situation.

"I knew it would save lives and we both knew it would be a gift to give Devin's organs," said Venables. "It was such a horrible tragedy, it was a horrible time and the grief and the loss was overwhelming, but the one thing that helped a little bit was something positive came out of it."

Venables and others affected by the gift of organ and tissue donation gathered at an event to kick off National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week (NOTDAW), which ran April 19 - 26, 2009.

"NOTDAW is a very important event for transplantation, both locally and nationally," said Mike Bentley, patient care manager, Transplant Services at University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. "There is such a great need to increase the number of organ and tissue donors. It's crucial for people who are considering becoming organ and tissue donors to speak to their family members about their wishes because it is the families who will be asked to make these decisions as part of end-of-life care."

Bentley also said physicians and nurses should be approaching families to offer the option of organ and tissue donation at the passing of a loved one.

"One single organ and tissue donor can help up to 80 recipients," Bentley said. "Although there are a number of exclusion criteria, all patients who die should be screened for possible tissue donation. It is a myth that a patient must suffer brain death to be considered for tissue donation. This is a criterion specific to organ donation only."

Tissues for transplant include corneas and sclera for sight restoration; skin for burns; heart valves for heart surgery in both children and adults, and bone and tendons for mobility restoration and bone repair.

In 2008, 486 Canadians donated organs after death, which included 42 Albertans. These gifts allowed for a total of 1,541 organ transplants to be performed in Canada. An additional 542 transplants were made possible in 2008 via living donation of the lungs, kidneys and liver.

For Venables, the choice of organ donation was not an easy one. She emphasizes the importance of having the discussion of organ and tissue donation with your family.

"Health care professionals meet us on the worst days of our lives and ask the toughest questions imaginable," she says. "I totally get why people would say no because they just can't give everything. But I think the thing we need to do is bring more awareness and have families talk about it before that unimaginable day comes, and it can come so quickly. Devin and I never spoke about this. I think bringing the awareness to it and families being able to talk about it beforehand would be beneficial."

Donna Wood had never known living donation existed until her husband needed a kidney.

Her husband Brad was diagnosed three years ago with polycystic kidney disease. After spending three years on dialysis, Brad's energy levels and ability to enjoy the active lifestyle he, Donna and their two children shared, started to deteriorate.

They began looking into options for kidney transplant, and learned that Donna would be able to donate one of her kidneys to her husband. The couple underwent surgery in October 2008 to transplant a healthy kidney from Donna to Brad.

"It really wasn't a decision - there was never really any discussion," said Donna, who says since the transplant their lives have returned to normal. "My energy is back and Brad is so much healthier and so much happier."

Tina Shaver, donor co-ordinator for the Southern Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Program, is hoping awareness weeks like NOTDAW shed light on the gift of organ and tissue donation. The benefits of organ and tissue donation for the recipients are obvious, but the donor families do get something from the process too.

"In my experience with donor families, once they have been given the option of organ and tissue donation, they are able to derive some meaning from their tragic loss and get some relief during the grieving process," said Shaver. "To have something good and something positive come from that experience is really a blessing. I don't think we've ever met a donor family that hadn't been delighted that their gift helped someone else - and they cling to that."