May 21, 2024

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Deciding to become an organ and tissue donor in Alberta

5 min read

As part of their renaming campaign, Alberta Health Services are encouraging families to discuss organ donations and facilitate more conversations on the topic

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Dawn Pinder’s first encounter with organ donation was in 2013 after her younger brother, Andy Polanski, passed away at the age of 23 after a car accident.

Sitting in the hospital waiting room with her family, she was told that her brother chose to be an organ and tissue donor. He was able to change the lives of five individuals.

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“Remarkably, at the age of 23 he had already had the conversation of being an organ and tissue donor with another loved one. In sort of that whirlwind of grief and tragedy it was amazing to hear those words that he had that conversation and it was a huge relief to hear that those were his wishes,” Pinder said.

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Alberta Health Services (AHS) has renamed its provincial donation program to Give Life Alberta, formerly the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Program. As part of the renaming campaign, officials are encouraging families to discuss organ donations and facilitate more conversations on the topic.

Scott Gordon, a nurse and donor co-ordinator with AHS, said part of his job is to talk to families about end-of-life care for their loved ones, along with working on public awareness and facilitating organ donation with physicians in hospitals.

How is the topic of donation brought up to families of patients?

Gordon said the initial approach will be completed by a physician — more often these patients are in the intensive care unit (ICU) with a form of traumatic injury that results in them being brain dead or close to brain dead.

Conversations will include discussions on end-of-life care including withdrawal of life-supportive treatments.

“Most of those initial conversations happen with the physicians and the families indicating that there is a critical illness that the person is not going to survive,” Gordon said. 

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Following those initial conversations, physicians will then invite nurses like Gordon to talk to families about organ and tissue donations. He said many are fairly receptive to the idea.

“I think for many families there’s an opportunity for maybe something positive to come from a very difficult situation,” he said. 

Alberta sees record year for organ and tissue donors in 2023

In Canada, there is an organ-sharing agreement across the country for heart, liver and kidneys, Gordon said. Patients who are at the top of the list and in most need of those organs would have first right of refusal.

But not all provinces do all of the various organ transplants. Most organs donated in Alberta stay in the province.

“Alberta, specifically Edmonton, is one of the hospitals that does all of the organ transplants for all ages. Whereas for example, Calgary, they do pancreas transplants and kidney transplants. But all the other transplants for adults and children in Alberta are done in Edmonton,” Gordon said.

One organ donor can save up to eight lives, according to AHS. In 2023, Alberta had 273 organ and tissue donors. There are roughly 300 people waiting for life-saving transplants in the province. Last year, nearly 50 people on the wait list died.

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Organ donation conversations lifts burden from families

Pinder said prior to learning her brother was an organ donor, she had signed up to be a donor when she was first asked, but noted how important conversations on the topic are and how they alleviate the burden for the family.

“I don’t think it has to be a grim conversation,” Pinder said. 

Gordon said the topic of organ donation is definitely not huge at the dinner table. He said it should be more encouraged in society to discuss what individuals want for their end-of-life wishes. More importantly, it is often something that gets left to families. It alleviates a burden in the midst of grief if families already have an idea of what their loved ones want.

“I think many families have a fairly good idea of what their loved one would want but, unless you have that discussion, you don’t know for sure,” he said.

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