SAVE A LIFE: At present there are 1.6 million registered donors in Australia.
ANGUS Taylor presses his face against the sliding glass doors. His blonde hair is plastered to his wet head, his red t-shirt is soaked through and muddy streaks run from his knobbly knees to his Spiderman gumboots as he jumps around impatiently.
“Mum, mum,” he calls through a toothy grin, “I’m ready to come in now, it’s raining out here you know.”
The promise of morning tea urges him to quickly exchange the wet clothes for warm, although his enthusiasm is tempered when a cursory glance at the table shows his path to the chocolate biscuits is blocked by watermelon and a vegemite sandwich.
He talks animatedly, flitting easily from one topic to another in that carefree manner of four-year-olds.
Did I want to see his worm collection? Did I know how to build a Lego car? Was I coming to his birthday party… his best friend Connor was coming and there was going to be cake – chocolate of course, with lots of icing and maybe some sprinkles, but not pink.
Every so often Tracey Taylor would put down her coffee cup and implore her son to slow down, but her smile as she looked at her precious boy was indulgent.
Just two years ago Angus, who was born with biliary atresia, was an all too frequent guest of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane.
A string of operations had bought him time but what he needed was a new liver.
The Taylors’ days were a frantic rollercoaster of trips to the hospital and visits to specialists.
Some days were easier than others, every one of them was a luxury.
There was some relief when Angus was moved onto the priority donor list but for nine months they waited with the mobile phone always close at hand and never straying more than two hours from home.
The call came late one Sunday after the family had already gone to bed.
“The doctors wasted no time in prepping Angus for surgery,” Tracey said.
“We were so happy and so scared and also so sad for the family that was saying goodbye to someone they loved.
“I wondered whether they were in the same hospital and how cruel and how amazing it was that their sadness could mean an end to ours.
“How do you even begin to thank someone for that?”
There are more than 1600 people on the transplant list in Australia waiting for that phone to ring, waiting for that second chance.
Such is the high rate of success of transplants in this country that should a donor eventuate, the recipient is likely to live a long and fruitful life.
The challenge, however, remains in receiving an organ in the first place because Australia, despite its skilled medical practitioners and altruistic identity, continues to lag behind.
For almost 20 years our organ donation rates have been among the lowest in the developed world and despite recent increases we remain in the bottom half of the table.
Last year the rate of deceased donation in Australia was 15.6 donors per million population, an increase of 5% on 2011 but still well below world-leaders Spain at 35.3dpmp and Croatia on 33.6dpmp.
At present there are 1.6 million registered donors in Australia, 336,000 of them in Queensland of whom two-thirds are female.
But very rarely does a willingness to donate your organs actually come to fruition.
The tricky thing about organs – heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas and intestines – is that their cells need a constant flow of blood to continue functioning.
That’s why organ donation is linked with brain death, because it is the only instance when despite confirmed death, medical staff can keep the organs functioning until they can, with consent, be recovered within minutes of the heart stopping.
Tissue donation – corneas, heart valves and vessels, tendons, skin, bone and pancreatic islets – are slightly different in that they can be donated up to 24 hours after death.
Some experts say that perhaps one of the reasons for Australia’s low donor rate is because our youthful population, effective road safety campaigns and high levels of public safety combine to make the deaths that usually result in organ donation quite rare.
Others say that’s hogwash, pointing the finger instead at the “family consent” clause which gives the family the final say, even if the patient was a registered donor.
Of the 710 families approached in intensive care units last year to provide consent for donation, 300 refused.
Those that agreed changed the lives of more than a 1000 sick people.
Of course a percentage of those refusals were registered donors which means that the family veto not only deprived some patients of life-saving surgery but also in a way undermined the autonomy of the registered donor.
That is why it is important says Catherine King, the Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing, that Australians not only add their names to the donor register but also take the time to discuss their wishes with their families.
“Around 40% of families say no to organ donation in part because they did not know the donation wishes of the deceased,” she said.
“I appeal to all Australian families to have the donation conversation – one organ and tissue donor can transform the lives of 10 or more people.
“Families that know the wishes of the deceased are much more likely to uphold their loved one’s donation decision in the event they ever find themselves in that situation.”
There are calls in some circles for Australia to adopt the “opt out” system favoured in top donor countries like Spain, Belgium France, Norway and Italy where everyone is considered a donor unless they specify otherwise.
The Organ and Tissue Authority which was established in 2009 as part of the Federal Government’s $151m funding boost to improve organ donation has to also find a way to convince a sceptical Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population to play an active part.
A cluster of chronic illness such as diabetes, stroke, hypertension, heart and kidney disease leave these communities with a greater need for transplants, almost eight times as much, but cultural beliefs, a mistrust of the health system and a general lack of knowledge on the subject has led to an under representation of donors and recipients.
An aging population and a general increase in diabetes and chronic disease means our overall need for organ transplants will only increase.
But hundreds of families like the Taylors will not have a chance at a better life if Australians fail to put their names down on the donor register and let their wishes be known.
It is the only way of turning tragedy into hope.
Year – Milestone – Location
1905 – Cornea (eye tissue) – New York USA
1954 – Living related kidney (identical twins) – Brigham Hospital, USA
1962 – First kidney transplant – Colorado, USA
1963 – First liver transplant – Colorado, USA
1966 – First pancreas transplant – Minnesota, USA
1967 – First heart transplant – Cape Town, South Africa
1978 – Living related pancreas (mother to child) – Minnesota, USA
1981 – First heart/lung transplant – California, USA
1984 – First heart xenotransplant “Baby Fae” – California, USA
1987 – First segmental liver transplant (for children) – Brisbane, Australia
1989 – First successful living-related liver transplant (mother to child) – Brisbane, Australia
1992 – First mono-segmental liver transplant (for babies) – Brisbane, Australia
1992 – Xenotransplant (Baboon’s liver to human) – Pennsylvania, USA
2002 – Liver transplant for youngest child in Australia (24 days) – Brisbane, Australia
2003 – First heart/lung and liver transplant in Australia – Brisbane, Australia