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Editorial: What better living legacy could there be than donating your organs?

18 August 2016 - The Press

Amy McCarthy says her late partner Riley Baker lives on in seven other people after his organs were donated following a ...


Amy McCarthy says her late partner Riley Baker lives on in seven other people after his organs were donated following a motorcycle crash last week.

It's a thought that fills most of us with dread: the phone call from the hospital in the middle of the night or the unexpected knock on the door by police. When the news is tragic, and your brain is spinning and failing to register what has happened, the right decisions can be hard to make.

That extends to organ donation. During your lifetime you may have expressed a wish on your driver's licence to be an organ donor. But unless you also explicitly discussed that with your family or partner, the likelihood – on current evidence – of that wish being granted is slim.

New Zealanders are recognised around the world for their generous support of charities and those struck by disaster. Unfortunately, our record of generosity when it comes to donating organs after death is quite a different story.

Figures from pro-organ donation campaign group Give Life show 48 per cent of those with driver's licences are listed as posthumous donors. But of the more than 1 million people who have ticked that box, there were only about 160 last year who could have given organs and from that group just 53 did. With about 30,000 New Zealanders dying each year, that amounts to a tiny percentage – about 0.2 per cent – whose organs end up helping those in need.

Organ donation is back in the spotlight after the deaths last week of two young South Islanders, Brittany Arthur and Riley Baker. Both Arthur, who died of meningitis, and Baker, who succumbed to injuries after a motorcycle accident, donated organs.

Jose Arthur said her daughter's wishes to be a donor reflected her love for others. Baker's partner Amy McCarthy knew he wanted to donate organs if it ever came to that and that "it was the right thing to do" to give others hope.

It certainly is something many of us could aspire to. But our engagement rates are notably unimpressive, compared with Australia and Britain.

Give Life puts this down to the listing on our licence being an after-thought on something administered by an agency concerned with transport and safety. New Zealand has some of the western world's lowest donor rates, with an average of about 10 donors per million compared with Spain's 35 per million.

Neither is the word "donor" on your licence legally binding. When you die, your licence and the New Zealand Transport Agency files are not checked for donor status; instead, your family decides what should be done with you. It is for this reason there are calls from some for an organ-donor register.

Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman has asked the public for ideas on ways to increase the number of organ donors. Submissions on that closed at the end of July.

Conversations about death are never easy but families need to be clear about your wishes, as they are the ones who will come under pressure, at a very fraught time, to make the final decision. Doctors will not overrule the wishes of a grieving family.

If you want to be a donor after you die, and more of us should be, make sure you tell that to your nearest and dearest.

 - The Press

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