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Sign on to save a life

Right now, around 1700 Australians are waiting to receive a life-saving new organ. My Weekly Preview speaks to those at the frontline of organ donation – including those who have given as well as received – as they urge others to sign on as organ donors. Words: Layne Whitburn.

Health & wellbeing

Sign on to save a life

Around 1700 Australians are waiting to receive a life-saving new organ. My Weekly Preview speaks to those at the frontline of organ donation

Would you take a minute out of your day to save other people’s lives? That question hits home for the Sunshine Coast’s Dr Geoff Cutter, because the answer saved his life.

“When you say yes to becoming a registered organ and tissue donor, you could help save up to 10 lives,” Dr Cutter says.

Dr Cutter received a kidney transplant in October last year, following a 30-year-battle with type 2 diabetes.

“I am so grateful for my donor registering to be a donor, and his family saying yes. I was told he donated both his kidneys, so he has helped someone else in a similar position to me. It really is life saving, and life changing,” Dr Cutter says.

Saying ‘yes’ to being a donor is a life-changing thing, but actually registering is where the life saving occurs.

Approximately seven in 10 Queenslanders say they are willing to donate their organs and tissues when they die, however, only one in three are registered do so.

Right now, approximately 1700 Australians are wait-listed for a transplant. A further 12,000 are on dialysis, and many of these would benefit from a kidney transplant.

That’s why it’s so important to take that final step and sign up on the Australian Organ Donor Register.

Sunshine Coast mother Mary Bourke went through the organ and tissue donor experience when her 18-year-old daughter Georgia died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage in 2014.

Mrs Bourke says despite the dreadful heartache of losing a child, knowing Georgia helped save seven lives has helped her family get through the grieving process.

Georgia’s sister Mikayla agrees. “It was the one thing in a very horrible situation that made the healing process a lot easier,” she says.

The Bourke family is far too familiar with the grieving process – over the past two decades three family members have died due to brain haemorrhages.

Mrs Bourke’s 49-year-old late husband Rod, 44-year-old sister-in-law Toni, and her daughter Georgia were all taken too soon.

It’s a devastating story, however, Mrs Bourke says, “In great sadness, can come great happiness.

“I received a heartfelt letter from a mother who was beyond thankful for her 30-year-old son to receive a heart transplant. I also heard from an older man who was forever grateful for the opportunity to watch his grandchildren grow.

“I remember at Georgia’s funeral, there was a massive DonateLife banner with Georgia’s photo on it, labelling her a hero. That made me so proud. I am so proud of Georgia.”

Mrs Bourke says after her sister-in-law Toni passed in 2004, the Bourke family gathered around to have a conversation about becoming organ and tissue donors.

She recalls Georgia saying at the time, “Take my organs, if someone else can have them – go for it.”

“Of course, you never expect it to happen, especially to a healthy, happy, young girl like Georgia,” Mrs Bourke says, recalling the day her daughter died.

Georgia was living Goondiwindi and was out playing touch footy. Her younger sister Mikayla, who was 13 at the time, was playing touch football on another field. Mikayla says she heard the hooter, and thought it was far too early for half time. She soon realised the sound was for a serious incident on her sister’s football field. Georgia had collapsed due to a brain haemorrhage.

Mrs Bourke recalls her daughter always having a smile on her face. “Georgia was the type of kid everyone flocked to,” she says.

“Georgia accepted everyone of all ages, races and disabilities, and everyone loved her for it.

“Her passion for people and helping others shaped her career choice fresh out of high school to become a teacher aide. She spent her days helping disadvantaged kids learn how to read.

“When Georgia passed, we set up a reading program in Goondiwindi called Reading With Miss Georgia. We raised money for the school reading program and supplied books to help improve the literacy skills for disadvantaged kids.”

Of the organ donation, Mrs Bourke says, “I think it’s also important to remember the people on the receiving end of this process. While the shock of losing a loved one is so hard, there are people out there waiting for a life-changing transplant.

“Their life has also been turned upside down, and many people are living a long, and unwelcomed journey in need of medical help to get their life back.”

On the receiving end, Dr Cutter spent a total of six years on dialysis. Two years pre-transplant, he underwent hemodialysis treatment. This went on for five hours per day, three days per week. Four years before this, he was on peritoneal dialysis, where he had to lug machines around with him.

“The journey leading up the to transplant was massive,” Dr Cutter says.  “I wouldn’t have gotten to the point of transplant if it wasn’t for the incredible team of dialysis nurses and everyone involved. It was a huge team effort to keep me going, and get me physically fit enough for the transplant. And even now, post-transplant, the team effort continues throughout recovery.”

Shona McDonald is one of the donation specialist nurse co-ordinators at the Sunshine Coast University Hospital (SCUH).

Mrs McDonald says the most rewarding part of her job is working closely with families to honour their loved one’s final wish or help the family make that final decision.

“For many families, it’s the one positive thing that comes out of a tragic situation. To help make that happen is an absolute privilege,” she says.

“The biggest challenge is probably dealing with the emotion that this job can bring. It’s impossible not to feel deep empathy for the sense of loss donor families are experiencing. The job can be physically and emotionally stressful when you are on call for long periods organising an organ donation and being away from your family too.”

Despite the level of emotions for everyone involved, Dr Cutter is living proof that the process is life saving.

Nine months post-transplant, because his recovery is occurring at the same time as COVID-19 restrictions, he is currently sheltering at home. However, he is still making the most of his gift, pursuing new life goals.

Professionally, he is researching the uses and benefits of medicinal marijuana to provide relief to patients living with chronic pain. Personally, Dr Cutter dreams of owning five acres of land somewhere in South Australia, where he can be self-sufficient and live to an old age.

“Words cannot describe how grateful I am for this gift,” Dr Cutter says. “That’s why I encourage everyone to register. All you need is 60 seconds and your Medicare card – it’s that easy.”

Mrs Burke agrees, encouraging people to simply start by having a conversation.

“Today, have a conversation about being a donor. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to talk about it now compared to when a loved one is on life support,” she says.

Mrs McDonald also encourages everyone to consider donating, saying age is no barrier.

“People over 80 have become organ and tissue donors,” she says. “People worry that they might not be healthy enough to donate, but people who smoke, drink or have unhealthy diets can still donate. You don’t have to be in perfect health to save lives.

“Our advice is to register, tell your family and let our medical experts decide if you’re able to donate at the time of your death.”

If you previously registered to be a donor on your driver’s licence, you now need to join the Australian Organ Donor Register.

Driver’s licence donor registries no longer exist – so if you would like to be an organ and tissue donor, please head to donatelife.gov.au and register.

Just one minute of your time today, could help save up to 10 lives in the future.

 

At a glance

Around 1,700 Australians are currently wait-listed for a transplant. A further 12,000 are on dialysis, many of whom would benefit from a kidney transplant.

In 2019, 1683 lives were transformed by 548 deceased and 239 living organ donors and their families in Australia.

106 Queensland deceased organ donors saved the lives of 300 Australians in 2019.

There were also 36 living donations (kidney) in Queensland in 2019.

Families of 454 Queenslanders donated their eye tissue and 338 people donated other life-changing tissue.

At the end of May 2019, there were 85,671 Sunshine Coast residents registered.

In Australia, 90% of families say yes to donation when their loved one is a registered donor. This compares to the national consent rate of 62%.

If our national consent rate reaches 70%, Australia would be in the top 10 performing countries.

One in three Australians are registered donors despite the majority (69%) believing that registering is important.

 

How can I register?

In Queensland, the ability to register as an organ donor on your driver’s license ended in 2005. To register you now need to head to donatelife.gov.au/register-donor-today.

By filling in the online form, you are registering your consent to become an organ and tissue donor. By doing this, you could save the lives of many people in the future.

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