Settlement Guide

Becoming an organ donor

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Organ donation transforms hundreds of people’s lives in Australia every year. Each organ donor has the potential to save up to ten lives and improve the life of many others. There are many misconceptions about organ and tissue donation, which can discourage people from registering as organ donors. Here are the facts.

Highlights:

  • More than 1,600 Australians are currently waiting for a transplant
  • Due to COVID-19 pandemic kidney transplant programs have been suspended while other transplantation programs are restricted to urgent cases
  • Organ and tissue donation needs to be an informed decision

DonateLife Week is held in Australia every year to build awareness around the importance of registering to become an organ and tissue donor. This year, the week-long national awareness campaign runs from Sunday 26 July to Sunday 2 August.

Dr Helen Opdam is the national medical director for the Organ and Tissue Authority (OTA), which runs the Australian Organ Donor Register.

She says while a majority of Australians are willing to become a donor, not all of them have taken the necessary steps.

Becoming a donor

The first step is to register as an organ and tissue donor through the online form on the DonateLife website using your Medicare number.

The second step is to discuss your decision with your loved ones and let them know you’ve registered as a donor. Your family or next of kin will need to confirm your decision about donation with the hospital so it’s essential that they’re aware of your choice.

The hardest thing is if the family doesn’t know what their loved one wanted, more often than not, they will end up declining donation.

Although organ and tissue donation may feel like a difficult topic to raise with your family, it is important to talk with them about it. Family members are more likely to give consent for an organ donation to proceed if they are aware of your decision.

If you are not sure how to start the discussion about organ and tissue donation with your family, OTA provides a fact sheet in English, Amharic, Nepali, Pashto and Tigrinya with some practical tips. 

organ donation, liver transplant scar
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The COVID-19 impact

In 2019, 1,444 Australians received a life-saving organ donation through the generosity of 548 donors and their families. A further 12,000 people benefited from eye and tissue transplants.

Currently, more than 1,600 Australians are waiting for organ donations and many of the 12,000 people currently on dialysis across the country are expected to require a kidney transplant to survive.

However, amid concerns with patient safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of organ transplants in Australia has been reduced. From 25 March 2020, kidney transplant programs have been suspended all together.

Transplant Australia CEO, Chris Thomas, says the decision to suspend the kidney transplant program is being reviewed weekly.

Quite simply, the risks at this time outweigh the potential benefits.

He points out that there is risk of severe complications if a person receives a transplant and is then exposed to Coronavirus while their immune system is recovering.

family holding hands in hospital
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Australian Health Protection Principal Committee notes that suspension of living donations has also occurred due to increased burden on intensive care unit (ICU) beds during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Transplant programs for Liver, Heart, Lung, Paediatric and multi-organ transplants are continuing, but restricted to urgent cases.

It is important to underline that we still need Australians to support donation.

Mr Thomas says people waiting for a heart, liver or lung transplant need both hope and confidence that once the pandemic subsides, all programs will recommence immediately.

surgeons, organ and tissue donation
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Myths and misconceptions  

Often, myths and misconceptions surrounding organ and tissue donation prevent people from giving a second chance at life to a fellow Australian.  Here are the top five organ donation myths busted.

MYTH: Organ donation is against my religion

FACT: Most religions in Australia, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, support organ and tissue donation as an act of charity and goodwill. Also, religious and cultural end-of-life requirements will always be respected and met to ensure everyone is comfortable.

MYTH: Once I register to be an organ donor, I automatically become one when I die.

FACT: Even if you have registered on the Australian Organ Donor Register you still need to discuss your decision with your family. Donations cannot proceed without their consent. Besides, donors must die in a hospital ICU where their organs can be medically supported until the organs can be donated. Due to pre-existing medical conditions, only around two per cent of people who die in hospital, die in such a way that organ donation is possible. However, many more can be eye and tissue donors.

MYTH: Doctors won’t try their best to save my life if they know I’m registered as an organ donor

FACT: Not true. Saving your life is the absolute priority for medical staff. Their first duty is to you, and organ and tissue donation are only considered when death is inevitable.

MYTH: I don’t want my body left disfigured.

FACT: The donor’s body is always treated with dignity and respect, and families can have an open casket viewing if that is their wish. Organ donation does not disfigure the body, and it is no different from any other surgical operation performed by highly skilled surgical teams.

MYTH:  I have a medical condition, so I can’t donate.

FACT: Nobody should rule themselves out due to age, medical conditions or lifestyle choices. There is every chance that some of your organs and tissues will be suitable for donation. Let medical experts decide how you could make a difference to someone’s life.

To join the Australian Organ Donor Register, or for more information visit donatelife.gov.au

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