Last year, 184 New Zealanders received lifesaving heart, lung, kidney, liver or pancreas transplants. Many more received donated tissue, such as heart valves, eye tissue and skin. Even after 20 years of working with potential donors and their whānau in intensive care and, more recently, with Organ Donation New Zealand – our national service for deceased organ and tissue donation – I am struck by the profound generosity and impact of these donations.
For the recipients of donated organs and tissue, that gratitude is something they live and breathe every day.
Although all transplant journeys are unique, they share some things in common. Recipients have had months or years of being severely unwell, often unable to lead an independent life. The call that tells them an organ is available is a memorable and life-changing moment.
For one recent recipient, new lungs have enabled a return to full-time work at a job she loves, and the delight of being a hands-on grandmother.
In another case, after months connected to an oxygen supply, a transplant has allowed a theatre nurse to return to her role in one of the country’s busiest hospitals.
A new heart valve for a builder in his 30s has provided a second chance for him to do the things he loves, such as surfing, and the opportunity to plan for exciting “first-time experiences” in the years ahead. For a teenager, a new heart has provided the opportunity, quite simply, to live a life.
The common thread among all recipients is unwavering gratitude to the donor and their family who showed generosity and compassion at a time of immense grief.
The number of deceased organ donors in New Zealand has risen over the past decade. While annual statistics fluctuate year to year due to the particular circumstances required for donation, there were 63 deceased organ donors in 2022 compared with 38 in 2012.
Organ and tissue donation is a precious gift that comes only from a precise combination of circumstance, human compassion and skilled co-ordination. At the forefront is the graciousness of a donor’s whānau dealing with the grief of the sudden death of a loved one.
Organ Donation NZ provides 24/7 information and ongoing support to whānau considering donation. We work with health professionals to ensure that processes for donation are nationally consistent and of the highest medical, ethical and legal standards. A successful outcome then relies on the co-ordination of medical professionals, laboratory technicians and scientists, the coronial service, through to transportation providers.
As one recipient said, “I will always be thankful to the ICU who looked after my donor and their family, to Organ Donation New Zealand for organising the donation, to the transplant team, my support crew – especially my husband – and to my donor’s family for their selfless gesture in donating their loved one’s organs.”
It’s why each year, with our annual Thank You Day – this year, tomorrow, on November 30, we take the opportunity to honour all organ donors and their families.
We also ask that more New Zealanders have a conversation with their loved ones about donation and what they would want if they were ever in a situation where it might be possible. You can acknowledge your intent to be an organ and tissue donor on your driver licence. However, this is not an official organ donation register and you still need to let your whānau know what you want to happen following your death.
Organ donation involves many, but it starts with one generous donor, their whānau, and a conversation.
Dr Joanne Richie is the clinical lead for Organ Donation New Zealand.