Manitoba urges organ tissue donation but moves slow on presumed consent

Three years after saying it planned to study Nova Scotia’s presumed consent for organ and tissue donation, Manitoba is still watching.

Instead, the province is relying on urgent public appeals — and lighting up the legislative building — to encourage people to sign up and become donors.

Signing up for donation “takes the burden of that decision off your family and ensures your intent is known and respected,” Health Minister Audrey Gordon said at a Monday press conference to kick off Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week.

She said the legislative building will have the Sign Up for Life logo projected on it through Monday and Tuesday to show support for a lofty goal by the province’s two human tissue gift agencies.

Transplant Manitoba and the Tissue Bank of Manitoba are aiming to register 10,000 new donors this year in recognition of a decade since the online registry site Sign up for Life was launched.

Last year, the site recorded 7,000 new donors, according to Gordon, who said she signed up long ago. The system was created in 2012 and moved entirely online in 2019, eliminating the old paper donor cards people used to carry in their wallets.

Also in 2019, MLA Reg Helwer, who chaired Manitoba’s task force on organ and tissue donation, said the province was taking a wait-and-see approach in response to Nova Scotia becoming the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce presumed consent for organ and tissue donation, which means everyone is a donor unless they opt out.

That legislation took effect in January 2021.

Labour, Consumer Protection and Government Services Minister Reg Helwer says Manitoba is ‘still considering and working on’ presumed consent for organ and tissue donations. (CBC)

Manitoba is still pushing the opt-in approach. On Monday, Helwer said the government is still focused on a public education approach to raise donation rates here.

As for presumed consent, “we are still considering and working on that,” he said. “I can’t give you anything definitive on when or what it might look like at this point, though.”

Asked why it’s taking so long, Helwer said, “we had this little thing called a pandemic that really focused our attention for the last two years throughout government.”

He then added, “I don’t want to blame it on the pandemic … but mainly we now have time that we can revisit this and see what the next path is for Manitobans.”

Currently there are more than 60,000 Manitobans in the donor registry. Out of a population of 1.4 million, that makes the donation rate in Manitoba 4.2 per cent.

According to Canadian Blood Services, the Canadian rate is 32 per cent. That said, 90 per cent of Canadians claim to support organ donation but just haven’t made the move to sign up, leaving 4,400 people waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant.

Each year, hundreds of those die waiting, the blood agency’s website states. That is why Nova Scotia adopted its presumed consent legislation.

One year after enacting the legislation, data indicated a significant increase in tissue donations as well as large increases in the availability of both tissue and organs for transplants in Nova Scotia.

Kristin Millar went into heart failure at age 26 and had a series of strokes. Her family was told she wouldn’t likely be able to walk, talk or see. (CBC)

Dr. Owen Mooney, medical director of Manitoba’s Gift of Life program, called organ donation “a rare and beautiful gift.”

Less than three per cent of in-hospital deaths can offer an opportunity for organ donation, which is why donor registration are so important, he said, adding it takes two minutes to register.

“Saying yes to donation offers hope and makes second chances possible,” Mooney said, encouraging people “to have life-changing conversations with loved ones.

“Someday those two minutes could mean the world to someone else.”

They did, and still do, for Kristin Millar, who attended the Sign up for Life launch 10 years ago, just a few months after her heart transplant.

“Nothing — my greatest hopes, my greatest dreams — could never have prepared me for the incredible life that this heart has given me for the last 10 years,” she said at Monday’s news conference.

Millar went into heart failure at age 26 and had a series of strokes. Her family was told she wouldn’t likely be able to walk, talk or see. She was on a wait list for two years, attached to a battery-operated pump, before a donor match turned up.

“The fact that I am here talking to you, able to be here and exist, is one of the most remarkable miracles,” she said. “I just know that I’m going to wake up and I’m going to be OK and that was not always the case.”

Not only did she gain physical health, but emotional, psychological and spiritual as well, Millar said.

“I think about my donor family all of the time — the selflessness, the courage, the gift they gave to me at the worst moment of their life. I promised the day after my transplant that I would give back a little bit of that in whatever way that I could.”

She went back to school and earned a social work degree “to give back a little bit of that empathy and that kindness that I have benefited so, so much from.”

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