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The Best Gift

by Jim Park

There's a compelling message stenciled on t-shirts worn frequently around the London Health Sciences Centre in London. Ont. It reads, "Don't take your organs to heaven, because heaven knows we need them here." And we certainly do.

Organ donation isn't an easy thing to discuss around the dinner table, however. That's why too few people know very much at all about organ donation programs, and why too few people sign up to become donors.

Happily, the push to increase recognition of the importance of organ donation recently got a big boost from the trucking industry in Ontario. In fact, a trucker named Tony Hopp, whose wife Janice had to wait nearly three years for a life-saving liver transplant, spearheaded the move.

"The problem is the shortage of available organs," says Hopp, who drives for Al's Cartage out of Kitchener. "At any one time, there are about 3600 people on the waiting list for a possible organ transplant, and about 30% of those are children."

Canada has a relatively low number of actual organ donors per million people - only 14, compared to 21 in the U.S. and 31 in Spain. Janice Hopp was warned she would have to stand by for a potential donor, and she was actually admitted to hospital and prepped for surgery twice before the procedure was actually completed.

There are many preconditions that must be met prior to a transplant operation:

  • A suitable donor needs to be identified. It's a misconception that people who die on the roadside in motor vehicle accidents are suitable donors. Cate Abbott, the information and resources officer at the London hospital's multi-organ transplant service, says tissue decomposition begins immediately upon the victim's death, which makes organ retrieval impossible. "The death must take place within a hospital so that we can take immediate steps to preserve the tissue for retrieval," she explains.
  • The organ and the recipient must be compatible. After an intensive screening process, the patient is assigned a code number indicating his or her medical condition and the severity of the need for the transplant. The people with the gravest conditions are always placed at the top of the list, but matters such as blood type and a number of other compatibility issues must be met first. "The sickest person isn't always the one who gets the donated organ," Abbott says.
  • Access to retrieval facilities. Not all hospitals are set up to co-ordinate and execute organ retrieval, or 'harvesting' as it's sometimes called. The imminent death of a hospital patient who has consented to tissue or organ donation makes for less complicated arrangements than the sudden death of a patient outside the hospital. "We have to mobilize the retrieval team if there isn't one available locally, and make prompt arrangements with the intended recipient because there's a very limited amount of time to work with the organ after it has been retrieved," says Abbott.

What both Abbott and Hopp would like to see is a vastly expanded list of potential donors, people who have signed donor cards and have made their wishes known to family members in order to increase the possibility of matching a donor to an eager recipient. Hopp believes the key to expanding the donor list is to shed more light on the process and to answer some of the awkward questions ahead of time.

"The process isn't well understood," he says. "Some people just aren't aware of the need for organs, or they still feel transplantation is some kind of experimental black magic. Others have religious beliefs that they think might discourage them from donating, and still others are just a bit squeamish about being dissected after death."

Abbott allows that some hospital staff are, understandably, reluctant to discuss organ donation with family members who've just lost a loved one. "It's a pretty awkward situation," she says. "But the donor cards make the process much less stressful."

While the wait for donor organs continues for thousands of Canadians, Tony Hopp and London-based Mel Hall Transport are doing a little something about the donor shortage - using trailers as rolling billboards.

Hopp says the idea occurred to him while driving home after visiting his wife in hospital. He'd previously been involved with another awareness campaign using a specially painted trailer for an Ontario charity called the Sunshine Foundation.

He approached the Ontario Trucking Association with the idea, who in turn contacted several trucking companies, and of the carriers who came forward, Mel Hall Transport was selected because they could guarantee the trailer would run daily in the busy Windsor-Toronto corridor.

Rick Woods, president of Mel Hall, says it just "sounded like a worthwhile project." While he's had no personal experience with organ transplants, he was glad to be able to help.

The Organ Donor Awareness Committee at London Health Sciences Centre then approached 3M Canada about the project. Ted Lawson, commercial graphics representative, worked with the Committee to develop the design and 3M then supplied all the materials for the project. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., a pharmaceutical company which has done its share of work over the years helping to increase awareness about the need for donors, sponsored the graphics and the installation.

Mrs. Hopp did receive a donor liver in May of 1999, by the way, and is currently continuing her anti-rejection drug therapy. She is expected to make a complete recovery.

To request a donor card or for more information, contact Organ Donation Ontario at (800)-263-2833, or from anywhere in Canada, 416/351-7328, or visit these websites: www.lhsc.on.ca/transplant and www.transplant-on.org.

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