We hear often that New Zealand has a poor rate of organ donation. We hear less about the circumstances in which organs are donated. Our story on Wednesday of the death of Gabrielle "Gabby" Marsh of a brain haemorrhage just before her 20th birthday was a rare exception.

That night, as she lay on life support at Auckland City Hospital, the young woman's family were told she was unlikely to survive. The next day a decision was made. Gabby was to be taken off life support - but not until her organs had been donated.

Read that last bit again. Her organs were removed before the life support was turned off. This is entirely normal. It happens everywhere every time a transplant occurs. Useful healthy organs have to be taken when the body is still alive.

This is something physicians promoting organ donation do not like to spell out but it is a fact every family of a donor discovers when it comes to the decision.


It is the reason families are given the final decision even though the dying person may have indicated a willingness to be a donor on his or her driver's licence.

If it was more widely known that the donation would be done when a brain-dead body was still warm and breathing, would there be fewer donors? Would families be more likely to over-rule their loved one's instruction, or less likely? It is hard to know.

But we do know our donation rate is already low so more candid information could not do much harm. And it just might raise the rate of donation if the public go used to the idea that this is how it has to be done.

For the family at the bedside it means a different farewell than the vigil most have experienced. After the Marsh family had made their decision it was not until the next day that Gabby was wheeled to surgery.

Her living organs would be transplanted to at least six people, all of whom would have been on a waiting list hoping for the generosity of a grieving family.

Organ donation salvages something worthwhile from tragedy and grief. Kathryn Marsh told reporter Anna Leask the decision to donate was easy because they knew it was what her daughter would have wanted as it was specified on her licence.

They knew her as thoughtful, adventurous, caring, a "rock star academic" at Mt Albert Grammar and clearly popular at Auckland University. Student friends have started an online appeal to fund a scholarship in her name.

It might help someone else to have the education she might have had, just as her lungs, liver, heart valves and other organs are giving a new lease of life to their lucky recipients.

More than 550 people are waiting for organs or tissue transplants in New Zealand at present. Nobody knows how many donors we have. There is no official register, drivers licenses are an unreliable guide because families at the bedside must give their consent.

Hopefully, stories such as that of Gabby Marsh will inspire more donors to tell their families they really mean it, and that if their life ends too soon they too would give what they could to extend the life of others.