Organ and tissue donation: saving lives and improving healthcare education across Canada
In the midst of what is often a tragic situation, organ and tissue donation has a powerful impact on people and our healthcare system. In a scenario where a body is donated, one individual could be responsible for saving up to 8 lives and improving up to 75 more.
The role that organ and tissue donors play in improving health and healthcare education in Canada cannot be understated. Unfortunately, registering to be a donor is often something that many individuals overlook. While 90% of people in Ontario support the idea of organ and tissue donation, only 35% are registered to be donors themselves. Closing this gap not only has the potential to save thousands of lives, but it can also improve the quality of healthcare education at schools like Queen’s, and lead to a more competent workforce of medical professionals.
Drs. Stephanie Sibley and Gordon Boyd are ICU physicians at the Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC). In addition, Dr. Sibley is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Emergency Medicine and Critical Care Medicine, and Dr. Boyd an Associate Professor in the departments of Medicine (Neurology) and Critical Care Medicine. Cognizant of the importance of organ and tissue donation, they work with the Trillium Gift of Life Network. Dr. Sibley is the Hospital Donation Physician at KHSC, where she facilitates organ and tissue donation. Dr. Boyd acts as the Regional Medical Lead and supervises donation activities at Hospitals across South-eastern Ontario.
Part of what Drs. Sibley and Boyd love most about their work is helping patients fulfill their wishes of becoming organ and tissue donors. “My work with Trillium is one of the things that I love most about my job. We are taking a moment that is terrible and adding a positive aspect to it,” says Dr. Sibley. “I think the most important part of this work is educating people about the process of becoming a donor and encouraging them to communicate their wishes to their families. Currently there are 1600 people in Ontario waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant, and every three days somebody in Canada on the organ donor waiting list passes away. I know it is not your typical dinner table conversation, but the best thing someone can do to help save lives is make their wishes clear to their loved ones.”
According to Dr. Boyd, education is a crucial component of increasing the number of registered donors in the region. “There are a lot of myths out there about organ and tissue donation,” says Dr. Boyd. “For instance, there is not a single religion in the world that is against organ donation. In other cases there are concerns about whether a donation will preclude an open casket funeral. A large part of my work with donors and their families is to dispel these myths so that they can make informed decisions.”
In addition to saving lives in the ICU, organ and tissue donation also plays a big role when it comes to training future physicians on how to perform lifesaving procedures. Nobody can speak to this better than Dr. Nici Rocca, ICU physician and Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine. Dr. Rocca runs a course for Emergency Medicine Residents at Queen’s, which uses donated cadavers to provide training on how to perform rare but essential procedures. The course runs for four days each year and focuses on addressing traumatic injuries related to patients’ airway, chest, eyes and more.
“We’ve been running this program for a couple years here at Queen’s. Initially we only focused on the airway component, but we’ve expanded it to include a variety of procedures” says Dr. Rocca. “There are several procedures that our residents may be expected to perform during their careers, but because they only happen a couple times a year at our hospital the chances that they would be able to gain that experience before they graduate is very slim. We are helping our residents build skills that they could very well turn around and use to save somebody’s life. That would not be possible without the generosity of our donors. Just last year, two of our graduates performed an emergency thoracotomy together. It went well and the patient survived and this, in part, was due to the fact that they had experience doing this before and made the decision to go ahead with the procedure.”
When asked about the most rewarding aspect of their work with organ and tissue donation, Drs. Sibley, Boyd and Rocca, were quick to note the impact that it had on donors’ families. “Knowing that their loved ones’ donation was able to save someone else’s life really helps families find some meaning amongst the tragedy that they are experiencing,” says Dr. Rocca. “I had a patient who was a young person and went on to become an organ donor after a very tragic incident. They had a young child and I remember listening as their grandparent explained to them that their dad was going to be a hero and save a lot of people’s lives. That was really powerful to hear.”
To register to become an organ donor in Ontario, visit www.beadonor.ca.