Have the donation conversation If you’re among 61,000 organ donors, or one of the 10,000 hoped for this year, please tell your family, Transplant Manitoba advises

When Winnipegger Rick Schmidt receives a call to fly to Edmonton for a double-lung transplant, Dr. Owen Mooney is one of the people he can thank.

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When Winnipegger Rick Schmidt receives a call to fly to Edmonton for a double-lung transplant, Dr. Owen Mooney is one of the people he can thank.

Man approved for double lung transplant waiting for call

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rick Schmidt, who requires a lung transplant, is photographed outside his home in Winnipeg Tuesday, June 7, 2022. Smith is waiting for approval from an Edmonton transplant team to go on a waiting list. Re: longhurst

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Rick Schmidt remembers the day in 2018 when he received his diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

“It was like an out-of-body experience,” said the now 66-year-old Winnipegger of that life-changing experience. “It was hard to think it was happening to me. This disease kills people.”

IPF causes scar tissue to build up in the lungs, making it hard to breathe. Drugs can slow its progress, but there is no cure. The only hope is a lung transplant.

Which is why Schmidt is nervous and hopeful at the same time; he got news last month that he meets the qualifications for a double lung transplant.

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Mooney, 45, is a critical care physician and medical director for Transplant Manitoba. He is one of a number of people across Canada whose job it is to secure organs for transplantation for people like Schmidt.

Although he works on the organ donation side, and isn’t involved in transplantation, “it’s such a good feeling when an organ is found for someone,” he said. “It’s indescribable.”

The challenge for Mooney is to get more people to sign up to be organ donors.

Currently, just over 61,000 Manitobans have signed up. Meantime, there are about 230 people in the province on the transplant waiting list — most for kidneys, but also for hearts, lungs and livers.

Almost anyone can donate organs after death, Mooney said; only people with cancer are screened out for internal organs, although eyes can still be donated.

Age can be a factor, too, but the health of the donor is the main thing.

The organs most needed in Manitoba are kidneys. “You don’t have to be deceased to do that,” Mooney said, noting people can donate one while living.

There is also demand for other organs such as lungs, hearts, pancreas, small bowel, skin and eyes, he said, adding “they are all in need.”

Organs donated in the province can end up anywhere across Canada, Mooney said, noting it works the other way around, too, with organs from other provinces being made available to Manitobans.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dr. Owen Mooney, medical director of the Gift of Life program at Health Sciences Centre, says it’s best to make your family aware of your wishes to donate your organs.

As for how the organ donor process works, Mooney explained when someone dies their name is run through Transplant Manitoba’s donation list.

If there is a match, the family of the deceased is notified and asked for permission to procure the organs.

“This is one of the most difficult times of their lives, so we know it’s a hard thing to do,” Mooney said, noting family consent is required before organs can be donated.

“By saying yes, it’s a way of honouring their loved one and their wishes.”

If the family knows the deceased was registered as an organ donor, 90 per cent of the time they agree. If they don’t know, it falls to 50 per cent.

To ensure organs are donated after death, Mooney recommends donors tell their loved ones about their decision.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Organs donated in the province can end up anywhere across Canada, Mooney said, noting it works the other way around, too, with organs from other provinces being made available to Manitobans.

When families say no, the most common reason is because they didn’t know the deceased’s intention, he said.

“It’s best if the family is aware of your wishes as a donor,” he said. “It makes things easier. The family is more likely to consent then.”

When it comes to religious belief, Mooney noted that most major religions do not forbid organ donation; people can consult their religious leaders if they have any questions.

While Mooney isn’t involved in the transplant side of things, he knows first-hand the impact organ donation can have — a friend was the recipient of a life-saving organ.

“He wouldn’t be with us without it,” he said, adding “Knowing what it means for recipients keeps me going, drives me to do this work.”

For Schmidt, who is registered as an organ donor, knowing someone somewhere in Canada will donate a pair of lungs so he can live is a humbling and hopeful thing.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILESRick Schmidt, who requires a lung transplant, knows "what will be a blessing for me will be sad for someone else."

“For someone like me, at the receiving end of an organ donation, all I can do is express my gratitude,” he said.

He remembers after his father died, and the family was asked if his eyes could be donated.

“We said, ‘Sure,’” he said. “He wasn’t going to need them anymore.”

He is also aware that “what will be a blessing for me will be sad for someone else,” especially if the donor is a younger person or died tragically.

His concern now is to get the word out to more people in the province so they will sign up to be organ donors.

“When someone dies with valuable organs to share with someone else, why not share what can’t be used anymore?” he said.

That’s the message Roberta Koscielny, communication specialist for Transplant Manitoba, is trying to communicate.

Some Manitobans may remember signing a donor card when they got a new licence, she said. But the province phased that out in favour of online sign up, which makes it easier to find donors when organs are needed.

“It’s hard to know if someone is a donor if all they have is a card in their wallet,” she said.

The pandemic made it harder to get the word out about the need for organ donors since it curtailed in-person events and limited opportunities to engage people in the province.

Despite that, more than 7,000 Manitobans signed up in 2021. Transplant Manitoba hopes to increase that by 10,000 this year.

“It’s the donation of a gift to someone you will never meet,” said Koscielny. “It’s also a gift your family can give after you are gone.”

To become an organ donor, visit signupforlife.ca.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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