How Does Organ Donation Work In Australia?

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Did you know that New South Wales scrapped the organ donor scheme from our driver’s licences all the back in 2012? The National Donor Registry is now under Medicare instead of the RTA.

The reason for the switch was in an effort to help increase the donation rate.

What Is The Organ Donation Rate In Australia?

Our national target for organ donation is 70%, but last year, only 56% of families consented to donation.

Being able to donate organs in the first place is really rare. Only 2% of people who pass away in hospitals can even be considered to donate.

“You [are] actually more likely to need a transplant, than you are to be able to give an organ to someone else,” said Nathan Pain, a 27-year-old from Queensland who received a heart transplant almost two years ago.

“That is a crazy thing to think of… the fact that the circumstances have to be so perfect for you to be able to donate an organ. For myself, like I was so blessed by a person to say yes to donation and for the family to stick by that decision,” he told Junkee.

Last year, there were 1,170 potential donors and of those donors, only 655 families consented and 421 ended up donating organs.

What Is The Process Like In Australia?

It only takes a minute to register as a donor and all you need is your Medicare card — but the final word lies with the family.

Dr Henry Pleass is a transplant surgeon and professor of surgery at Westmead Clinical School and the University of Sydney. He explained to Junkee that just because we may sign up to an organ donor registry, family will always still be asked for their approval.

“I think we are seeing that perhaps if there’s been a conversation before with the family and if the person who’s deceased has signed up on an organ donor registry, that seems to make a big difference in terms of your ability to get the living family to consent,” he added.

South Australia has the highest percentage of Australians signed up on the registry, and their donation rate is also the highest at around 73%. NSW is one of the lowest at 51%. Dr Pleass thinks that might be due to a fear around what organ donation really means.

“I think it’s that misunderstanding actually that it’s somehow being destructive to the body. Organ donations are also just another major operation and we treat the patient exactly the same respect as we do for a living patient.”

He wants Australians to understand that transplant surgeries, while they can seem frightening, mean that doctors can save up to seven lives.

“When you see someone who’s close to death with liver failure and then you see them walking out of the hospital two weeks later, it’s for me still an amazing achievement.”

What Is It Like To Receive An Organ Transplant?

As young Australians, sometimes we don’t really think we’re at risk of serious conditions. But for Nathan, he was diagnosed with heart failure when he was just 22 years old.

“When I was first diagnosed, I just couldn’t believe that there was such a thing that I could get sick, have a cold, get the flu, whatever, and it attacked my heart and caused me to nearly die,” explained Nathan.

Nathan was diagnosed with viral-induced cardiomyopathy. This meant that a virus, like a cold or flu, ended up attacking his heart and left it functioning at around 20% capacity.

“The doctor looked at me and he said, you’re likely to need a heart transplant within the next couple of years. And I just thought that was the wildest thing that I’d ever heard.”

His condition wasn’t bad enough to be placed on the transplant list then, so he instead had a defibrillator placed next to his heart. Then after two years, he suffered a cardiac arrest while surfing with his mates. In an incredibly lucky twist of fate, a doctor who was surfing nearby was able to recognise the warning signs and resuscitate him back on the shore.

This time, he was placed on the transplant list and ended up waiting 13 months for a donor heart.

“When I got the call, it was a moment of shock briefly. It was like, oh, wow, this is happening. You know? And I walked in and I said to my wife, I just got the call.

Then when it finally happened, I was just really calm. Like I was just like, you know, this is what I’ve been waiting for. This is how I get my life back.”

While the physical symptoms of heart failure were difficult, it also toll it took on his mental health. “It’s a tough wait mentally, to be on a transplant list. And like every time your phone rings, you’re just thinking it could be the phone call,” he explained.

Dr Henry Pleass urges Australians to consider what it means to consent to organ donations and ensure your family or next of kin are aware.

“It’s absolutely life saving and life changing.”