Since transplant surgery began over 50 years ago, tens of thousands of Canadians have made the choice to donate their organs upon their death. These organs (and tissues) are then assessed for suitability and surgically transplanted into someone on a transplant waiting list. Organs from people who have died, usually suddenly, are a critical source of organs for transplantation. Deceased donors may also be called non-living donors or cadaveric donors.
Although anyone can sign their donor card, or otherwise indicate their wishes to become an organ donor upon their death, only the organs of a small number of people–about 3%–can actually be used. This has to do with medical issues, including the health of the organs, and the circumstances of the person’s death.
Before organ donation can occur, strict medical criteria must be met to determine if brain death has occurred, or to proceed with the donation after cardiac death.
Even though a person has signed their donor card, the family of the deceased person will be consulted in the consent process.
The lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas and bowel can be donated. Tissues may include eye tissue, heart valves, bone, tendons, veins and ligaments.
More than two dozen people can be helped by a single donor. An organ donor may specify which organs and tissues he or she would like to donate.
After the person dies, the organs are removed surgically. The body is not disfigured and is treated with respect and dignity. An open casket funeral is possible for deceased donors.
Organ transplant programs have an allocation (or matching) system so that the distribution of organs that become available is based on fair criteria. These may include suitable match, the amount of time already spent on the waiting list, and other factors. Each transplant center can provide the guidelines it uses. More general information on organ allocation criteria can be found on the Web site of the Canadian Blood Services.
In Canada, an organ donor cannot choose who will receive their organs after their death. Organs (and tissues) are allocated based on the organ allocation criteria in place in each province. The recipient will not know the donor’s identity since there is a law in Canada to protect the anonymity of both the donor and the recipient. However, many transplant programs will forward letters of thanks or cards from the transplant recipient to the donor’s family, and vice versa.