COLUMN: Donors lives ought to be considered

NANAIMO – We need to consider the lives of organ donors and ensure that their gifts aren’t the result of greed and poor medical ethic

Every year before city council, Nanaimo resident Serge Vaillancourt makes a passionate plea for people to register at British Columbia Transplant so their organs can be donated should the unthinkable happen.

I’ve heard his speech several times. Vaillancourt often weeps when he gets to the part about what might have become of his daughter had he died before receiving his new liver in 2005.

It’s always an emotional speech, and I never get tired of hearing it. His heart is unquestionably in his passionate quest, which is to encourage organ donation.

With National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week having come to a close on April 24, other people have been at the forefront encouraging organ donation.

Perhaps the most notable was Ottawa resident Helene Campbell, a charismatic 21-year-old who received a double-lung transplant a few weeks ago after being diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis last summer. She was fortunate to have stars like Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Bieber take on her cause. Thankfully, she is recovering well so far.

But for every happy face that gets a second chance at life, there is a person who died before their time.

Well, they sort of died. For organs to be adequate for transplant, the donor can only be brain dead – the rest of their body is functioning just fine. It can maintain its temperature, heal wounds, even urinate.

The brain-dead, you see, are legally dead. They aren’t dead-dead, and this is a distinction that needs to be looked at more closely.

According to Dick Teresi in conversation with Maclean’s magazine, it’s easier to be declared dead today more than any other time in human history.

Teresi is the author of The Undead, which looks into the pressures facing organ donation and medical practices used in the process.

Teresi and others even think these ‘cadavers’ can still feel pain as their organs are being harvested.

In other words, where are the donors’ rights in the high-stakes business of organ transplants? They can’t speak for themselves, and it is often difficult for families to come to a consensus on organ donation at such a difficult and emotional time.

There is some concern that doctors are rushing to pronounce people dead, and with a price tag of about $700,000 attached to each organ, it’s also big business.

To the transplant business, a single human body can be worth $2 million.

Imagine being the family that has to make that decision.

With health care in B.C. and across the country in dire financial stress, and with hospitals operating well beyond maximum  capacity, when it comes to bed availability, there needs to be an organization overseeing the best interests of potential organ donors, because in the business of organ transplants, it seems to be that everybody but the donor benefits.

This moves medical ethics into a dangerous grey area. If the Hippocratic Oath pledges to “do no harm” to anyone, how can we be sure we aren’t causing pain to those who are brain dead?

Their well-being needs to be considered, instead of having medical specialists rush to harvest their organs, possibly having taken them off life support prematurely.

There’s no question that seeing organ recipients like Vaillancourt and Campbell get a second chance at a happy and productive life is inspiring. It’s a true testament to the human will to survive and the technology and science that accompanies organ transplants.

But we also need to consider the lives of the donors and ensure that their gifts aren’t the result of greed and poor medical ethics.

The least we can do is let them rest in peace rather than in pieces.

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