Chairman's Desk

How an organ donation saved my life

Canada’s organ donor rates are significantly lower than the U.S., Spain, and France. And I can’t imagine any Canadians who thinks that’s OK.

A year ago I had a kidney transplant.

Since then, my life has changed in ways I never dreamt possible. To be able to dream of something, you must be able to imagine it. But I could never have imagined my life today, much less dreamt of it. In fact, I have no memory of feeling this good.

Before my surgery, I had been living with end-stage kidney disease. And like many other illnesses that develop over time, you get used to things being just as they are. But with kidney disease, you eventually get to a very bad place. A place where you are faced with three options: do nothing and die; undergo dialysis; or get a new kidney.

And so while it is a surprise to many, a transplant is the treatment of choice for this disease. And that’s what I was blessed enough to have.

In every respect, I won the lottery of life. My partner and I were a match. I live in Toronto — the best place, on the evidence, on the planet to have your kidney transplanted. And our medicare system ensured I wouldn’t be wiped out financially.

Fortunate as I was, many are not. According to Canadian Blood Services, over 4,000 Canadians are waiting for not just a life-saving, but a life-transforming, organ transplant. And this is no comfortable “wait.” People really suffer; their lives deteriorate daily. And most tragically of all, the most unnecessary and painful fact is that — each year — for hundreds of our fellow citizens time runs out and they die while waiting.

The reason for this is no mystery: there are simply not enough organs to meet the demand. And the solution is not a mystery either.

International comparisons show that Canada’s donor rates are significantly lower than the United States, Spain, and France. And I can’t imagine there is a Canadian among us who thinks that’s OK.

The good news is the path forward has been discovered, tried, and tested here in Canada. The approach is what’s known as presumed organ consent (or “opt-out” legislation). In short, this means people are presumed to consent to donate their organs after their death unless they “opt out.”

In 2021, Nova Scotia became the first jurisdiction in North America to adopt this practice, and it’s already saving lives. But the policy rationale extends beyond life-saving potential. People who require organ donation depend heavily on our medical system for vital care and support.

Indeed, dialysis costs roughly $100,000 a year per patient in Canada. By comparison, a transplant costs approximately $66,000 with continuing costs of roughly $23,000 per year for monitoring and anti-rejection medications. These are not insignificant savings for an already overburdened sector.

There are, of course, many ethical dilemmas to navigate on this issue and any future plans must guarantee that religious and spiritual convictions are respected. However, the “opt out” policy option is a proven solution. One that saves lives. It is also a solution that matches the incredible compassion and generosity of the Canadian people.

In the late Paul Dewar’s final statement to Canadians, he told us he saw his illness as a gift. I never truly understood his words until I was lying by myself in an ICU bed with an IV in each arm.

But now, I do.

The finest gifts fill you with a sense of awe, humility, renewed purpose. Today, I have a new life because the man I love risked his own. You can’t quantify this feeling of gratitude. Or touch it. Or hold it in your hand.

You can live out your life with humility and renewed purpose and awe. You can give back and tell your story. You can keep the gift alive.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 5, 2023.