Nfld. & Labrador

Organ harvesting in all regions of province not practical, says Steve Kent

A recent case of a western Newfoundland family finding out their loved one would have to be flown 800 kilometres to St. John's to donate his organs is unfortunate — but nothing new, the health minister says.
Health Minister and Deputy Premier Steve Kent says while it would be nice to have organ harvesting available in all of the province's health regions, it's not reasonable given current regulations. (CBC)

A recent case of a western Newfoundland family finding out their loved one would have to be flown hundreds of kilometres to St. John's to donate his organs is unfortunate but nothing new, says the health minister.

Steve Kent said while he sympathizes with the family's ordeal, the policies surrounding organ donation in Newfoundland and Labrador have been in place since 2013 and are there for good reason.

"Organs can't be retrieved in all health regions of the province," Kent told CBC's On The Go on Wednesday.

"Organ harvesting, as it's called, takes place at the Health Sciences in St. John's because specialized equipment is needed, it's located there."

The program that oversees organ harvesting is the Organ Procurement and Exchange Newfoundland and Labrador (OPEN).

Organ Procurement and Exchange Newfoundland and Labrador (OPEN) overseas organ donation in the province. (Eastern Health)

Kent said in previous years, OPEN did coordinate organ donation by going to all health regions, but since 2013 that process has become more regulated and is now only available in St. John's.

"It would be great if we could be involved in organ harvesting right across the province, but the reality is the landscape in Canada has changed, it has become more heavily regulated," he said.

"We always want to take the needs of the family into consideration, but in order to ensure the safety of the procedures it has to happen in St. John's."

Since 2013, all organ donors in Newfoundland and Labrador must travel to the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's for retrieval. (Google Maps)

Kent said no more than three organ donation patients have been transported to St. John's since the policy change in 2013. However, he did say that doesn't necessarily mean the patients were not from outside of the capital.

"While that's not many, please keep in mind that people who have had a severe brain injury come to St. John's for tertiary care, and that often leads to being a donor, so some are procured that way," he wrote in a subsequent email to On The Go.

"Also, a very small percentage of the population are organ donor candidates, and that requires expert medical assessment, which is done in St. John's."

Kent said despite those facts, the main reason organ donors are brought to St. John's is still ultimately because that is where the expertise is contained, and where safe organ retrieval can be best assured.

Kent also said there were also "a few" cases where patients who were billed as potential donors did not come to St. John's.

Organ harvesting in all regions not realistic

Kent said the example of the York Harbour family is a rare one, and since the new processes came into effect two years ago, the whole system seems to be working.

The minister said the argument that more people would donate organs if it were possible to harvest them in different areas around the province, is an unreasonable expectation.

"It isn't practical to have all of those services offered in multiple jurisdictions," Kent said.

"We're geographically a very large province, but small in terms of population. So there are some tertiary services that have to be offered in a central location."

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