Australia

Not enough young people in Australia are signing up to be organ donors

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The majority those aged 18 to 25 know they can register to be an organ donor, but a lot less have actually signed up. Here, two people who benefitted from organ donation share their stories.

Jessica Southers is 26 years old. Not only is she a registered organ and tissue donor, but she's also a recipient.

The Sydney woman had a progressive eye disease called keratoconus and was considered legally blind.

When she was 19, she underwent a successful cornea transplant thanks to someone who had signed the Australian Organ Donor Register. 

She clearly remembers the moment her sight was properly restored.

Organ recipient, and registered donor, Jessica Southers
Organ recipient, and registered donor, Jessica Southers.
SBS

"It was insane," she told SBS News this week, during DonateLife Week. "You watch those videos online of children that hear for the first time - it is real. There's no difference.

"It's overwhelming, it takes your breath away because I didn't realise what I couldn't see."

"The first thing I remember seeing after surgery is the wrinkles on my mum’s face, which I’d never seen before. And I thought they were beautiful."

The first thing I remember seeing is the wrinkles on my mum’s face, which I’d never seen before. 

- Jessica Southers, Transplant recipient and registered donor

DonateLife Week encourages more Australians to register to be an organ and tissue donor, and to discuss their wishes with family and friends.

Led by the Organ and Tissue Authority, it is a key part of the government's national reform program to increase donation and transplantation outcomes.

Jessica has this message for the family of her donor, whose identity she'll never know, as those details are always kept private.

"I have been able to reignite my real love for life, I feel powerful and in control of my own destiny because of your generosity", she said.

"Your generosity has changed my life."

Waiting for that call

Two-and-a-half-year-old Chloe is a vibrant, lively toddler, but that wasn't always the case.

She needed a liver transplant at only five weeks old as she had biliary atresia, a rare disease of the liver and bile ducts that occurs in infants. 

Luckily, Chloe didn't have to wait long for a liver to become available.

Valencia and Chloe
Toddler Chloe received a new liver thanks to an organ donor.
SBS

"Seven days may seem really, really short, but it was the longest seven days ever, in my whole life," Chloe's mother Valencia, who is based in Melbourne, said. 

"It was just, waiting for that call, waiting, hoping, waiting, hoping."

And Valencia will never forget the moment that call came.

"The exact words were: 'I think we may have found a liver for Chloe'."

Where are all the young donors? 

While many young people in Australia are aware they can donate their organs and tissue, not enough are signing up. Meanwhile, 1,400 Australians are currently on the waiting list for a transplant.

In a recent survey, 88 per cent of 18 to 25 year olds in Australia said they were aware they could register to be a donor, but just 14 per cent had done it. 

People can sign up to be an organ donor from the age of 16, but the Australian Organ Donor Register shows only about eight per cent of those aged 16 to 25 are on the register.

Dr Rohit D'Costa
Dr Rohit D'Costa is encouraging more young people to sign the register.
SBS

To be an organ donor, a person must die in hospital, but even of those who do, only two to three per cent die in circumstances where it is feasible for their organs to be donated.

Many more people can gift their eyes and tissue, as they can be donated up to 24 hours after death, regardless of where it happened. 

"About half of Australia's deaths occur outside hospital," Dr Rohit D'Costa from the Royal Melbourne Hospital said.

"Of other deaths that occur in hospital, they may occur in other parts of the hospital where a person isn't on life-supporting treatments, therefore the organ function may deteriorate well before the person is finally deceased."

How to become an organ donor

Chloe's mum Valencia and Jessica are encouraging more people to sign Australia's register. 

“She probably wouldn’t be here with us if it wasn’t for an organ donation,” Valencia said.

Jessica agrees: “Everyone should do it. It is a massive legacy, an incredible thing to do.”

In just a few minutes, anyone can register as an organ and tissue donor. Register as a donor here.

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