'It's a rare, uncommon gift': ICU specialist calls for organ donor program after Humboldt crash

A red sticker on your health card does not guarantee your organs or tissue will be donated when the time comes, said a critical care specialist who spent the past week at Royal University Hospital.

Sask. now only province without organ and tissue donor registry, specialists

"Every other province in the country has a donation program," said Dr. Stephen Beed. "There's a real opportunity here." (CBC)

Saskatchewan has plenty of patients who need transplants, but remains the only province without a specific program dedicated to organ or tissue donation.

While other provinces have seen a recent spike in people joining registries to indicate their willingness to donate, Saskatchewan residents have no such option.

One critical care specialist who spent the past week caring for victims of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash at Royal University hospital said it's time to change that.

"This is something we need to fight for because it's a rare, uncommon gift," said Dr. Stephen Beed. "We need to work with our transplant colleagues to make donation a real institutional priority."

Beed is the chair of Canadian Blood Services' Deceased Donation Advisory Committee. Since 2006, he's also served as the medical director of Nova Scotia's organ donation program.
Logan Boulet, 21, was among the 16 that died in the Humboldt Broncos' bus crash. His decision to donate his organs led to a wave of people signing up to become organ donors, across the country. (Saskatchewan Junior hockey league)

He said it's good for people to talk about their wishes with family, and to put a red 'organ and tissue donor' sticker on Saskatchewan health cards.

But there's no guarantee that person's wishes will be followed, Beed said.

"We have a generation of health care practitioners who aren't well-informed about this topic and it's a difficult, stressful situation." said Beed. "We need to change that."

Beed said few, if any, physicians learn about organ donation during medical school or their residency. The University of Saskatchewan does not offer specialization in critical care training at its College of Medicine.

Complicating that, Beed said, only one per cent of patients dying in intensive care units would be potential candidates for organ donation, making transplant coordination a relatively rare occurance.

"If it only comes up every few months, interest wanes," he said.

They're just as happy that their dad gave a kidney as if they helped somebody see again.- Dr. Stephen Beed, critical care physician

Still, Beed said Nova Scotia made great strides after asking staff at small hospitals to focus on tissue transplants, which are less complex, with donation opportunities every week.

"Donor families don't differentiate," said Beed. "They're just as happy that their dad gave a kidney as if they helped somebody see again."

He said Saskatchewan hospitals need to make organ and tissue donation part of their culture.

Donations gave grieving families a ray of hope

Over the past week, Beed cared for numerous Humboldt Broncos' players and team staff, including Logan Boulet, who died in the crash.

Beed said his family found a ray of hope in donating Boulet's organs to six other people.

"They were very happy that his gift could help other people and I hope they carry that message for the rest of their lives," said Beed. "The positive that comes from the worst day of their life is something they carry forward."

He recalled another family bitterly disappointed when their loved one was too badly hurt in the crash to be a donor.

"There's a disconnect"

Beed said medical staff in Saskatchewan also need to find a way to connect with indigenous hospital patients and their families.
Monica Goulet, left, lives in Saskatoon, and spends hours every week hooked up to a dialysis machine. Physicians tell CBC one patient's dialysis support will cost the health care system $105,000 per year. (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

"The consent discussion with these families hasn't been successful very often," said Beed​. "That's a challenge but it's also a huge opportunity."

He said no family should feel forced into consenting to medical procedures which go against their spiritual beliefs, but indigenous families need transplants too.

"I see an opportunity here because many people in the First Nations community have medical conditions that may make them a candidate for transplantation, such as kidney failure."

Saskatchewan does not track those willing to donate

An organ and tissue donor registry was one of ten recommendations from Saskatchewan's Standing Committee on Human Services two years ago.

Today, the province has no plan to create one.

"Our government is committed to improving Saskatchewan's organ and tissue donation rates," health officials said in a statement e-mailed to CBC.

"Regardless if you are a registered donor (as the model used by other jurisdictions) or have the sticker placed on your health card, it is important to talk to your family to ensure they know your wishes, as donation in Canada will not proceed without the consent of the next of kin," a spokeswoman said.

The ministry said it will promote organ and tissue donation awareness next week, and is spending $433,000 this year to develop a "leadership model that includes donor physicians and Registered Nurse (RN) donor coordinators."


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