Organ donation improves the quality of lives and saves lives. However, at the moment the Organ Procurement and Exchange Network of Newfoundland and Labrador—also known as OPEN—is not able to take organ donations and won’t be until the fall.
Last week The Independent learned that OPEN may have stopped taking donations. This was later confirmed by an emailed statement from Eastern Health.
“Currently, additional Eastern Health staff are being trained; therefore, the OPEN program is temporarily paused and is expected to continue as early as Fall 2022,” an Eastern Health spokesperson wrote in an email response to The Independent.
Moreover, Eastern Health continues to encourage people to register as organ donors by either indicating on their Medical Care Plan application (or renewal form) their “Intent to Donate,” as well as doing it through the MyGovNL portal.
It’s unknown exactly when OPEN was put on pause.
Still, the news was painful to hear for a family hoping to honour a loved one by donating their organs. The request to donate to the program, however, was recently turned down.
“The organ donor program really is something that I just assumed would be there,” a member of the family told The Independent. “It seems far too important—too sacred—to lapse. And it can be a genuine, if small, comfort for families in the middle of something so terrible. Let alone when you consider how necessarily selective they have to be with donors to make sure that transplants are safe for the recipient.”
“Finding out that the program is apparently suspended because of administrative problems has been pretty upsetting ever since I found out,” they added. “It feels like a slap in the face that hasn’t really stopped stinging yet.”
The Independent isn’t naming this individual out of respect for the family’s privacy.
Tom Osborne, the newly minted Health and Community Services Minister, also emailed this statement: “Eastern Health is working diligently with staff to resume the OPEN program as early as Fall 2022. In the meantime, OPEN continues with tissue importation and distribution activities and is working to complete in-person preceptorship orientation in donor management and organ allocation.”
“I understand the importance of the program here in the province,” he wrote, “and am confident, when the proper training is complete, the OPEN Program will resume donor management and organ allocation activities.”
The Need for Organs in Canada
In Canada, people die while waiting for an organ to become available.
As of December 31, 2019, the Government of Canada states 249 people died waiting for an organ transplant, 3,014 organs were transplanted, and more than 4,300 people were waiting for organ transplants. Furthermore, the need for transplants is expected to increase as our population gets older.
This puts Newfoundland and Labrador in a difficult position, as it’s home to the country’s oldest and fastest aging population, according to recently released Statistics Canada data.
The Eastern Health website also stressed the importance of organ donation, warning that “the reality is that some will die waiting. In a province where we are all connected, where everyone knows everyone, it could be someone you know. It could be you.”
The website also notes an individual is six times more likely to need a transplant than be a donor.
Newfoundland and Labrador uses an opt-in program. It’s assumed an individual won’t be donating. If they want to donate, they have to go through the process of signing up and giving their consent to participate in the program.
However, some countries, like France, presume consent for organ donation so people have to opt-out.
A few years ago there was some talk on the provincial level that the program could be reversed, with people having to opt-out of the program but it never happened.
Even if an individual is listed as an organ donor, that doesn’t automatically mean when the time comes they will be viable candidates. It can depend on how they died, for instance, or if they had a particular medical condition.
The Eastern Health statement said that there are other factors to consider with regards to potential organ donation. These are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. For example, the person must meet the criteria for neurological determination of death (NDD), while the safety of organs for transplant and the suitability of the organ also need to be assessed.
“Once a donor assessment has been completed, the results are sent to transplant centres to evaluate suitability within their patient/client population,” the statement read.
Health Care Woes in NL Worsen
The news around OPEN being closed comes at a time when the province’s health-care system is already heavily strained by a lack of resources, staff burnout, the additional demands caused by the pandemic, and other issues.
There is also a family doctor shortage. It is estimated that there are 125,000 people—24 percent of the province’s population—without a family doctor, particularly in rural areas. The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association released this information after hiring Narrative Research to conduct a survey on the matter.
This means people are not getting regular health care. When they do need to see a doctor, many end up in emergency rooms, which puts further strain on the system.
Last month, CBC also reported that emergency rooms in 12 towns had to close or had been placed on diversion so far this year, sometimes for a few weeks or even a month at a time.
In fact, on July 29, Eastern Health announced in a press release that emergency services at the Dr. William H. Newhook Community Health Centre in Whitbourne and the U.S. Memorial Health Centre in St. Lawrence would both be temporarily closed from August 1 to August 8.
On Monday, it was announced that emergency services at Bonavista Peninsula Health Centre would be closed temporarily because of a human resource problem from August 2 to August 8.
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