I had other intentions for my final column, a light-hearted end to an amazing academic year. However, as a friend popped up in my Facebook newsfeed pleading for people to discuss their views on organ donation with their parents, partners or whoever else will listen, my 900 words found a more more worthy cause. Perhaps your perception of the issues people have around organ donation change according to your experiences, but for the last 12 months, a friend’s sister has been in and out of hospital every other second as her Cystic Fybrosis worsens, and she has been placed on a transplant list, as she’s desperately in need of a new set of lungs.
It really makes it crystal clear exactly what people mean by giving the gift of life through organ donation, when someone who is so clearly suffering could be in with a chance of having a normal and productive life that potentially barely involves hospitals, at the very least relative to someone in this girl’s current rate of occupancy there.
I have gone about trying to obtain an organ donor card in the last number of months, something that I then believed would be respected upon my death. I downloaded the app onto my phone, and almost ordered the physical card before considering that they hadn’t really asked for very much information at all, and surely with something as serious as organ donation, you would imagine they would at least ask your blood type.
It turns out that our country is as backwards about organ donation as it is about everything else. The debate here doesn’t rage over whether we should have an opt-in or opt-out system, as we currently have don’t even have a real system. Ordering an organ donor card actually guarantees very little about the future of your organs. There is no way, in Ireland, for you to declare your wishes with regards what happens to your organs after you die, with doctors obligated to ask your next of kin whether they would like to donate your organs regardless of how many cards you carry, apps you download, or boxes you tick.
Even if your next of kin completely agrees with your decision to donate your organs, it still must be extremely difficult for them, almost immediately after your death, to have to tell a doctor that they have permission to take your organs. While in a normal, rational conversation, they may be quick to say that they will protect your wishes, it is a whole other story in the moments after your death, when emotion and a need to hang on may take over all rational thoughts.
While people believe in opt-in and opt-out systems for different reasons, mostly Ireland needs to start with just having a live register. In 2010, there was a record low for organ donation here, while 2011 was a record high. These kinds of dramatic swings in donation numbers aren’t seen in other countries with the proper infrastructure and systems in place to deal with organ donation.
I don’t believe Irish people aren’t willing to donate their organs, at least not in the majority. The problem really lies in the fact that it isn’t something they consider or have to consider. Opt-out systems make the most sense to me. I cannot understand people being precious about their organs when all their plans for the rest of time revolve around being dead, and either buried underground or cremated. What use are your organs to you in either of those situations? You could save up to nine lives with your organs, giving a new life to many very ill people whose last chance is an organ donation, or they could lie in the ground, doing absolutely nothing for anyone.
Beyond just that I don’t see any need for organs beyond the grave, it’s very hard to take arguments around opt-in systems seriously. It seems to come down to a petty battle between which side should have to go to the effort of declaring their preferences. When those preferences have the potential to save so many lives, surely the onus to make the effort should fall on those who feel so passionately about their dead organs, that they can’t bare to let them go? For those who aren’t pushed either way about the future of their organs, if they don’t take the time out of their day to make sure they’re on the list, they probably equally won’t take themselves off it, and that is hundreds, quite probably thousands, of lives saved.
For those who argue that this is the theft of organs, I say that this is ludicrous. With an opt-out system, people are forced to consider, and by extension choose, whether or not they are happy to donate their organs. If they don’t care enough to tick a box, surely they don’t care enough about their organs to deny nine people potentially life-saving transplants.
These are really insignificant arguments however, in light of the current situation in Ireland. According to organdonation.ie, there are 650 patients currently waiting to receive transplants, and only an average of less than 250 transplants are taking place every year. While carrying an organ donor card offers you little guarantee, it is signed by your next of kin, so obtaining one allows you to at least open discussions on the matter.
It’s a bizarre concept at first, and certainly for a long time I had a weird belief that I shouldn’t donate my eyes/corneas, but then when I actually thought about why that was, it was mostly to do with my eyeless face looking weird than actually having any need or value for my eyes after I pass away. No one is going to see my eyeless face, and even if that was an organ they could harvest in Ireland, they’d close my eyes after. No one wants to see the open eyes of a dead person, regardless of whether their corneas are there or not.
If you’re against organ donation, that is for you to decide, but at least first consider why that’s the case before you rule yourself out of helping others long after you can gain any use from your organs. It’s a discussion we all need to start having with our family and friends, and there’ll never be a moment too soon for that.