Record number of Australians register to become organ donors amid pandemic
New registrations from 2021 showed an 87% increase over the year before 2020, with 349,947 people joining the list of potential donors.
Organ and Tissue Authority CEO Lucinda Barry said the record was partly an unexpected side effect of the pandemic, with many Australians easily registering on their Medicare Express app while accessing their vaccination certificate.
A campaign by DonateLife and community concern over a potential health crisis from COVID-19 has also rallied everyday Australians to sign up.
“What this means is that someone waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant can receive a transplant and go on to live a strong and healthy life, both with their family and in their community,” Ms. Barry.
Similarly, COVID-19 has posed challenges for transplant specialists in Australia. Border closures have forced traveling surgeons into quarantine, and restrictions around intensive care units have made it difficult for transplant teams to speak to families of dying patients, many relying on FaceTime.
“The relationship that intensive care staff have with families is key to being able to explain that their loved one won’t make it, but would they be willing to consider donating their organs, to save the lives of other Australians? … being able to do that face-to-face is so important,” said Professor Steven Chadban, co-chair of the National Transplantation and Donation Task Force.
Remarkably, 1,174 Australians were able to find life-saving matches on the organ donor register last year, including two-year-old Riley Swander.
At 32 days, Riley was diagnosed with a rare liver disease known as ‘biliary atresia’, which causes blockage of the ducts that usually drain bile from the liver.
In 2019, she underwent a Kasai procedure at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, a surgery designed to redirect bile from the liver to the intestine.
“At first it worked, but unfortunately due to other complications she suffered from infections, portal hypertension and sepsis,” her mother Katrine said.
Riley’s condition worsened. The little girl was unable to eat, she was put on a catheter and stopped growing.
Reliving that time, Riley’s father Rob said, “We were just watching thinking ‘she just doesn’t have a chance. It’s not a good life for a little child. “”
Doctors recommended Riley for liver donation and in late 2020 she had her first transplant. The hope it brought to parents Katrine and Rob turned into trauma, with little Riley’s body rejecting the organ.
“We thought it was going to be life changing, but unfortunately every parent’s worst nightmare happened, and it didn’t turn out,” Katrine recalls.
But without giving up, the Swander family looked into living donation, discovering that Riley’s father, Rob, had the same blood type.
On the day of his surgery to remove part of his liver in early 2021, Rob received a call that a deceased organ had become available for his daughter.
“I didn’t expect this to be the call it was, and when I finally spoke to the nurse coordinator, it was life changing,” he said.
The transplant was a success and gave Riley and her family a chance at a healthy life.
“We care so much for the families on the other side, knowing they were going through something terrible but had the courage to give us this gift of life,” Katrine said.