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Sign up
for life

A boost in organ, eye and tissue donation
rates could help more Manitobans like Dean Omeniuk
Double heart transplant Dean Omeniuk and wife, Cathy.
By Susie Strachan Photography by Marianne Helm Sept / Oct 2017
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It's unusual enough to meet a person who is the recipient of a transplanted heart. It's doubly so when you meet Dean Omeniuk.

Last spring, Omeniuk underwent heart transplant surgery to replace the one he received in 1996.

Back then, he was a young father who fell ill on the September long weekend at the cottage. His wife, Cathy Omeniuk, was concerned about her husband's shortness of breath, and drove him to the hospital in Selkirk, thinking he might have pneumonia.

As it turned out, Omeniuk did have a virus - one that attacked his heart. He was transferred to Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg, where he stayed for two weeks before being transferred to London, Ontario, where he waited until December for a heart transplant.

Dr. Faisal Siddiqui
Dr. Faisal Siddiqui says at any given time there
are about 200 Manitobans waiting for a kidney
transplant.

"That heart didn't cause me any trouble for the next 20 years," says Omeniuk. But that changed in late 2016 when biopsies and angiograms showed that it was developing problems. His health-care team began prepping him for a second transplant, which he underwent in Edmonton, Alberta in April of this year.

Today, now working on his second transplanted heart, the father of three is back at D & D Excavating and Hauling in Birds Hill, the firm he owns with his wife Cathy. His transplant team in Manitoba continue to keep an eye on his physical condition through regular check-ups.

Clearly, Omeniuk is alive today because of two organ donations. And he is not alone.

Many lives have been saved or improved over the years through the donation of organs, eyes and tissue. In fact, the federal government estimates that a single donor can save as many as eight lives and improve the quality of life for up to 75 people.

Despite these impressive numbers, the fact remains that registered organ and tissue donor rates in Manitoba still lag behind those of other jurisdictions across North America. As a result, the donor registration rate at Sign Up for Life, which serves as the central registry for organs, tissue and eyes in Manitoba, is currently about 1.5 per cent. By comparison, some other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States report sign up rates of 30 per cent or more.

As of August, just over 20,000 Manitobans had recorded their donation decisions, according to Dr. Faisal Siddiqui, a physician with Transplant Manitoba's Gift of Life program.

And although that number climbs every day, Siddiqui says it could rise a lot faster if people took the time to sign up to become organ and tissue donors.

"We're urging all Manitobans to go online to register their choice, something that takes a mere two minutes to do," says Siddiqui.

The online donor registry supports all three human tissue gift agencies. Click below to read more about their work.
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An organ transplant is often the only treatment for people with organs that are damaged through injury or disease and who would otherwise die, says Siddiqui. Skin, bone, eye, and heart valve donations also dramatically change and improve the quality of life for people of all ages.

How to sign up for life logo

At any given time in Manitoba, there are about 200 people on the wait list ready for a kidney transplant, and about 20 people waiting for a lung, heart or liver transplant. Approximately another 100 people are waiting for a cornea.

The online donor registry supports all three human tissue gift agencies: Transplant Manitoba for larger organs, Tissue Bank Manitoba for skin, bone and tendons, and the Misericordia Eye Bank for corneas and other parts of the eye.

Part of the reason Manitoba lags behind other jurisdictions may be due to the fact that many Manitobans still carry untrackable paper donor cards. Introduced in 2012, the online registry securely records donation decisions, which means the information is always available if it is ever needed.

In a bid to further facilitate donations, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority also introduced a mandatory referral system, which allows all intensive care units and emergency rooms to contact the Gift of Life program after the decision has been made to withdraw life-support and if the patient meets organ donation criteria.

Dean Omeniuk
Dean Omeniuk put a "Sign Up For Life" decal on one
of his trucks to raise awareness about organ donation.

Since adopting the policy, the percentage of all potential donors referred has increased from 35.1 per cent in 2014 to 74.3 per cent in 2016.

However, it is important to note that only one to two per cent of potential donors will meet necessary criteria, and not all of those will proceed to donation. Also, the window of time during which donations can be secured is very small, says Siddiqui.

"The team has worked hard to educate and connect with (intensive care) and (emergency department) staff, and we are very pleased with the increase in referral rates. The increase in referral rates means the program is being notified of all potential donors. However, not all of these will proceed to donation for various reasons - testing determines not eligible, family declines, the patient wasn't a candidate to begin with," he says.

In 2015, the program recorded 131 referrals. Of those, 93 were identified as potential donors and 48 met the criteria. Out of those, 43 per cent of the families declined. Seventeen went on to become donors. In 2016, 233 referrals were received and 101 were identified as potential donors, out of which 75 met the criteria. This time, 51 per cent of the families declined. Sixteen went on to become donors.

So what can be done to boost the overall number of donations?

Siddiqui says the single biggest step to improving organ donation for Manitobans in need is for families to have the organ donation conversation before decisions have to be made.

"When families know their loved one wished to be a donor, 90 per cent of families support that choice," says Siddiqui.

"Once a potential donor has been identified, the routine notification protocol means we are called if a person is in hospital and meets two criteria: that they are on a breathing machine and other life support, and that they are not expected to survive the injury. At this point, end-of-life discussions are happening.

"Our organ donor co-ordinators would review the charts, check the donor registry and then meet with the family," says Siddiqui.

"We're urging all Manitobans to go online to register their choice, something that takes a mere two minutes to do."

If the person meets the criteria to become an organ donor, Transplant Manitoba donor physicians and donor co-ordinators work to ensure the person's wishes about organ donation are honoured.

It's important that people talk to their family about their wishes, says Siddiqui. "More people are thinking about it, especially when they get to a point in their lives when they realize that, if it comes down to a stage where they won't survive, that they can still do some good."

As of 2016, the province has allowed organ donation to happen after cardio-circulatory death. In these cases, a donation is only considered after all life-saving methods to save a patient's life have been tried, says Siddiqui. Donation after cardio-circulatory death is considered when the person's heart permanently stops beating, and may involve donation of their lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas, tissue and corneas.

Kidneys and corneas can be transplanted in Winnipeg, while the rest are done elsewhere in Canada, according to Siddiqui. Transplant Manitoba teams work closely with their counterparts in other provinces, to ensure the donations end up with the people most in need.

Transplant Manitoba would love to see provincial donor numbers rise from where they are. "We know that 90 per cent of Canadians support organ donation. Around 50 per cent have thought about it, and in other places, around 30 per cent have registered," says Siddiqui. "We want to improve our numbers here. It's such a wonderful gift, when you think about it, to be able to help another person live a healthy life."

While thinking about the importance of organ donation, Omeniuk and his wife Cathy came up with an idea to encourage more Manitobans to sign up. They've installed decals on one of their gravel trucks, showing an EKG pulse along with a message inviting people to Sign Up for Life.

"We want to pass the message on that it only takes a couple of minutes to sign up as a donor," he says. "I cannot say thank-you enough to the person who, while their life had come to an end, made that choice to be an organ donor. They gave me their heart. And that means the world to me."

Susie Strachan is a communications specialist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

By the numbers

In 2016, there were:

200
Manitobans on the wait list for a kidney transplant

20
Manitobans waiting for a lung, heart or liver transplant

100
Manitobans waiting for a cornea

57
Living kidney donor transplants performed

16
Multi-organ donations made by deceased Manitobans

Source: Transplant Manitoba

On video

TEDx: Katy Portell talks about the conversation that saved her life

How to Sign Up For Life

If you are considering signing up to be an organ donor, please go to www.signupforlife.ca. Registration is simple - you will be asked for your name, birth date and personal health information number - and you can choose the options that best reflect your decisions. The website also has a list of frequently asked questions about organ donation.

To avoid confusion at the end of life, share your wishes with your family members. That way, crucial decisions like organ donation can be made more easily in a time when emotions are high.