In order to be an organ donor, the donor must die from brain death, also referred to as neurological death. In laymen’s terms, this form of death results from a severe injury to the brain, whereby the brain ceases to function because of insufficient blood or oxygen. If the person does not die before reaching a hospital, the organs can be kept alive for a short period of time, allowing for them to be donated. This is highly uncommon, occurring in just 1% to 2% of all deaths. People who die from other causes cannot donate organs, although they may still be able to donate tissue, including eyes, skin, bones, veins, and heart valves.
Once a person dies in this manner, consent for organ donation must be given by the family. This typically happens within 24 hours after death, since transplant operations are emergency procedures that need to be carried out with organs that are still functioning properly.
All over Canada, support groups help the donor families deal with their loss.
The decision to donate organs requires much reflection. Families must base their decision on the wishes of their loved one who passed on. So while having “organ donor” noted on your driver’s license or carrying a donor card is important, medical staff always discuss the possibility of donation with the person’s family before a donation takes place. That is why your family must be made aware of your wishes to donate.
The challenge is that many relatives simply don’t know what those wishes are. Studies show about 50% of Canadians are unaware of what their loved ones wanted regarding organ and tissue donations.
These numbers touch on the need for people to express to their families that they would want to be a donor. Depending on where you live, organ donation wishes can be expressed by:
- signing your health card (in Saskatchewan, an “organ and tissue donor” sticker can be placed on your health services card)
- specifying it on your driver’s license (in P.E.I., the license will have a red heart engraved on it)
- signing a card from the provincial registry
The registry card can be given to a family member, who would then be able to respect those wishes in the future.
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