14/10/2015 5:40 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Getting To The Heart Of Organ Donation

When someone said to me recently that he wouldn't ever become an organ donor because he was afraid that "the doctors would turn off my life support just to get my organs", I realised that not everyone had experiences that gave them my trust in modern medicine.

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Female doctor with the stethoscope holding heart

My sister, a doctor who treats kidney transplant patients, is a major drama queen. Sometimes she gets a phone call and has to rush to work (a la Hugh Grant in his TT behind the ambulance in About a Boy) as a kidney is potentially becoming available. Or she announces that she's speaking at an international conference on transplants, (a.k.a. going to London for a week sans kids), or has just won a competitive government grant to continue her team's research into new transplant techniques.

Yes, it's all very dramatic and important and amazing, but trust me, hearing about her meaningful contribution to society gets old really fast.

Just when I'm boasting in a family group text message about having learned to ride a scooter (think Razor, not Vespa), my sister will interrupt with a curt: "Can you please leave me off this thread, I am expecting a call about a kidney". Without even acknowledging my achievement.

You'd think she's saving lives or something.

As I have witnessed my sister sensationalise her career in a thinly-veiled attempt to assert herself as the golden child in the family, I have seen a side to the world of organ donation that many people have not. I have heard about what it's like to be on the waiting list for a kidney for years, and the painful treatments the patient has to endure while they wait, knowing they could die before a match is found.

I know about the research into better treatments and medications to improve the chances of organ acceptance by recipient. I understand about how precise the circumstances have to be for a successful transplant to happen, so that the risk is minimal and the chances are maximized. I have seen the lifelong dedication of healthcare professionals to improving the quality and duration of the lives of people whose bodies just simply refuse to function properly.

Which is why, when someone said to me recently that he wouldn't ever become an organ donor because he was afraid that "the doctors would turn off my life support just to get my organs", I realised that not everyone had experiences that gave them my trust in modern medicine.

I mentioned this to my sister, and she knew that was a concern that many of her patients had encountered in society. So I thought we should confirm some facts about organ donation:

1) You don't always have to be dead to donate. Live donation is possible with some organs. For example, kidneys. My sister has found that 30 - 50 percent of kidneys are donated by live donors. And if you are not a match for the loved one you want to give a kidney to, the Paired Kidney Exchange Program now matches willing donors to other patients on the waiting list; because many potential donors find that once they have made the decision to do a live donation for a loved one, it would mean just as much to them to help save the life of a complete stranger.

2) One human body can donate its heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, skin, stem cells and corneas, to save a life, or dramatically change the life, of someone who is suffering from, for example, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune diseases, hepatitis and liver disease. Last year in Australia, 378 organ donors benefitted 1,117 recipients.

3) There are approximately 1600 Australians on organ transplant waiting lists at any given time, and you cannot guarantee that you or a loved one will never be on that list. In fact, as says, if you would say yes to a life-saving transplant, say yes to becoming a life-saving donor. Sixty-nine percent of Australians are willing to become organ donors.

4) It may reassure some people to know that it is actually very rare for someone to die in the circumstances required for organ donation. The donor needs to be brain dead (no blood flow to the brain), not simply in a coma, in a hospital intensive care unit. At least two doctors assess whether there are any chances of recovery and confirm that brain death has occurred.

Then a series of tests are performed to assess a person's eligibility to donate. It is an intensive process that involves families, surgeons, nurses, theatre staff, donor co-ordinators and intensive care unit staff, so it is a highly regulated and visible process.

5) All healthcare professionals are legally and ethically committed to saving the life of a patient before organ donation is even considered.

6) Even if you have registered to be an organ donor, donation will be discussed with your family before any decision is made; if the next of kin does not give permission, the donation will not happen. In practice, though, the next of kin rarely veto donation, because they know they are honouring their loved one's wishes, and they are comforted by helping others and finding meaning in their loss.

My sister gave me a lot of this information, and had much more to say, because, as I have established, she loves talking about herself. Thinking of the word limit on this article, I finally I got her to shut up by interjecting: "I didn't learn any of this from the Nip/Tuck season on the organ trafficking ring." Which was sufficiently idiotic to kill the conversation. But her last words were the most poignant: "There is no greater professional joy than watching someone tied to the burden of organ failure receive a new lease on life."

So please, register to be an organ donor, and discuss it with your families. By doing so, you will decrease the chances of me ever being mum's favourite child, and increase the chances of my sister being an eternal pain in my butt; but you may also one day end up saving several lives, so it's a hit I'm willing to take.


Nama Winston blogs at the Revolting Writer