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Giving the gift of life

New online organ donor registry attracts thousands of Manitobans

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Since the launch of the Sign Up for Life website in late April, thousands of Manitobans have registered their intent to donate organs.

"In the eight-hour period when the site was launched on April 23, we had 1,022 people register," says Dr. Brendan McCarthy, Medical Director for the Transplant Manitoba - Gift of Life program, which keeps track of the registrations.

That first week, 3,800 Manitobans registered to donate. By late May, that number had jumped to 5,000. Manitoba's registry is doing very well, with an average of 50 people signing up per day.

McCarthy is thrilled that so many people are stepping forward to make the gesture that will save lives. The list of what one person can donate - heart, liver, kidney, skin, eye, bone, cartilage - stretches to the point where they can help up to 75 others.

"Our goal is to get people talking about organ donation. Our website encourages people to tell others through Facebook and Twitter. We want them to tell their families, tell their friends," says McCarthy. "We currently don't have enough donors to meet the needs for transplant."

As of early May, there were 173 people waiting for a kidney transplant, four for heart transplants, seven for liver transplants and a dozen for lung transplants. On average, between six and 15 people become donors in Manitoba per year. Transplant Manitoba is hoping to increase those numbers to 30 a year.

The online registry plays a big part in that effort. To be an organ donor, a person must be in a state of brain death. The possibility of organ donation is only raised when all life-saving efforts have failed.

"Donation is a chance to bring something positive out of what is often a tragedy. Sadly, people still are dying of traumatic causes, like car crashes," says McCarthy.

The difference between the old method of signing an organ donation card and signing up online is that Transplant Manitoba has a registry of your wishes. Not everyone arrives in the hospital after a bad car accident or brain trauma with their organ donor card in their pocket.

"Where we can get our numbers up is through having more families consent to follow their loved one's wishes. In the past, families declined because they didn't know," says McCarthy.

Some people find the concept somewhat macabre, but those who register often know someone who is waiting for a transplant, says McCarthy. Statistics also show that people are six times more likely to require an organ donation in their lifetime, than become an organ donor.

"When you talk with someone needing a heart or kidney transplant, you can see how your selfless donation would help their life become better. When you're gone, nothing can bring you back. But your donation can bring life to a lot of other people," McCarthy says.

Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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