This column originally ran in April 2011, and has been updated and reprinted in recognition of World Kidney Day last week.
I recently took a call from a disgruntled reader complaining that a cartoon we ran relating to B.C.’s lengthy organ transplant wait-list was in poor taste. After a brief debate about such things being opinion, just like editorials or columns, and having encouraged the gentleman to write a letter to the editor, we agreed to disagree.
But thanks to this man’s comments, the thought of organ donation and the state of transplants in our province stuck with me. Having admitted that I had yet to fill out the forms to become an organ donor, he directed me to Transplant B.C.’s website, where I could do the paperwork online.
I decided to investigate. Going through the registration process took me exactly seven minutes, and that included reading some of the fine print. I admit I had a few butterflies before hitting send.
It’s funny, I’ve often talked about how important the need is for organ donation and how I am all for being on the list myself. Yet I hesitated ever so slightly before completing the electronic agreement.
I had no problem many years ago putting the organ donor sticker on my driver’s licence. In the hustle and bustle of the licensing office, it seemed like the noble thing to do.
It seems like a short time ago, but the stickers are long gone, rendered invalid in 1997 when B.C. became the first province in Canada to create an organ donor registry.
A little background on my feelings about the matter is probably required here.
My ex-wife has polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary condition that can attack more than just the kidney. Cysts can form on the liver, pancreas and spleen as well, sometimes rendering them less effective than they would be under normal circumstances, ultimately causing more health problems down the road.
Given that it’s genetic – her father had it and her brother is on dialysis battling the effects of PKD and awaiting a transplant – the disease can be passed to children, thus continuing the organ mutation trend.
My ex was fortunate enough that her sister, who does not have the disease, was able and willing to donate one of her kidneys. That gift has allowed her sibling to live more comfortably with the disease.
But thousands of people in B.C. living with PKD or any other organ-affecting disease or condition may not have the same opportunities. They must wait until someone dies in an accident or of natural causes – someone who is registered as an organ donor – and that’s only if they’re already on the transplant wait-list.
The good news is that as of last month, more than 925,000 B.C. residents had signed up with the registry (more than 17 per cent higher than in 2011). The total, while promising and growing, still amounts to just over 20 per cent of the province’s population.
Unfortunately, the transplant business is largely a numbers game, with probability and chance – some people might say fate – key factors as well. The more people who are registered as organ donors, the more likely that matches will be found for those on wait lists.
There were 326 transplants of solid organs or islet cells (from the pancreas) in B.C. in 2014, down slightly from the 346 performed the year before, but higher than the 285 done in 2011.
As of March 12 this year, 176 patients had received transplants, putting us on pace for roughly 900. One hundred seven of those (104 kidney, three liver) were from live donors, a scenario that is increasing in recent years. But there were still 465 people left on the wait-list, of which 354 need a new kidney.
Something to think about: most people only need one kidney to function normally, and immediate family members are the most likely donors, although anyone of the same blood type as the patient is a candidate.
If that situation doesn’t present itself, but you believe donating your organs after you die is a good idea, talk to your family to let them know your wishes. Then visit transplant.bc.ca to register or to find more information.
It may be the most heartfelt gift you ever give.
UPDATE: My ex-wife received a liver transplant in January, her condition having deteriorated enough to warrant the surgery. Sadly, her brother passed away a few years ago from the effects of the disease, having not received a transplant.
Don Descoteau is editor of the Goldstream News Gazette.