Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Social Affairs, Science and Technology

Issue 20 - Evidence

OTTAWA, Tuesday, February 4, 1997

The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, to which was referred Bill C-202, respecting a National Organ Donor Week in Canada, met this day at 9:35 a.m. to give consideration to the bill.

Senator Mabel M. DeWare (Chair) in the Chair.


The Chair: Honourable senators, we are dealing with Bill C-202 this morning, An Act respecting a National Organ Donor Week in Canada. We are pleased to have before the committee Mr. Dan McTeague and Ms Pat Sherbin.

This is a very important bill for you, and we look forward to your remarks. Please proceed.


Mr. Dan McTeague, MP: I want to say that I am delighted that this bill was passed by the House of Commons just before the Christmas holidays. This is one of my greatest achievements as a fledgling member of Parliament. Obviously, the reason why we are here today is to promote this bill.


I am joined today by Pat Sherbin of the Multiple Organ Retrieval and Exchange Program, which works right across Canada. The men and women of that agency are on the front line attempting, as they have over the past years, to coordinate and to provide much-needed transplants. I must confess that the reason for this bill is the reality that there is a shortage of the gift of life in Canada.

The genesis of this bill was about three years ago when a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler in my riding was tragically killed in a vehicle mishap. When young Stuart Herriot succumbed to his injuries, his parents made the decision to allow his organs to be donated to several others. His organs were used to allow four other people to receive the gift of life. In effect, in Stuart's death came life for four other people.

The purpose of this bill is not so much to commemorate Stuart as it is to allow the gift of life that Stuart had given to serve as a reminder that, in Canada, hundreds of people die every year waiting for a transplanted organ. It is tragic, to say the least, that despite having arguably the best health care system in the world, many people succumb simply because there are not enough people to provide much-needed organs.

Parliament's recognition through a National Organ Donor Week would help foster education and promote an awareness that, in dying, we may also give the gift of life to other people. It is not so much prose as it is reality that in Canada we are missing the mark.

I have taken the liberty of proposing this bill as a way of encouraging education and awareness and of ultimately allowing Parliament to take a leadership role on a cross-Canada basis in addressing the deficit in terms of the numbers of people who die tragically every year in Canada for lack of organ donations. One could get into the effect on the costs of dialysis treatment if we were able to give everyone a kidney.

I want to turn over to Pat Sherbin. Her presence here today is testimony to how a bill like this, if passed, would get us that much closer to doing something that transcends partisan considerations and something that is ultimately in the interests of every Canadian as we mature.

Ms Pat Sherbin, Communications Manager, Multiple Organ Retrieval and Exchange (MORE) Program of Ontario: This bill presents a unique opportunity for Parliament because, once it is enacted, I guarantee that at least one life and possibly hundreds of lives will be saved. Those lives will be saved because National Organ Donor Week will create a focus and will engender discussions.

Organ donation is something that people do not like to talk about because they look upon it as death. In fact, a discussion about organ donation is a discussion about life. It is the continuation of a life after a death.

When we have something like National Organ Donor Week on which to focus, then people begin the discussions and some of the barriers that are faced by organ donation come down.

One of the barriers is that people think certain religions are not allowed to donate organs. The fact of the matter is every single religion does support organ donation because, behind every religion is the idea that you help save lives, you help your fellow man. There are certain restrictions in some religions concerning the body after death, but if it is for the purpose of saving another life, then those restrictions are overridden for the better good.

Some religions also have restrictions about using organs for research but not for donation. If there are restrictions about using the organs for research, that can be worked out between the family and the health professionals when the consent form is signed.

Another barrier is that people often think, "Well, if I sign this donor card and I go to the hospital, will they really do everything to save my life? Because I here there is a real shortage of organs." The fact of the matter is that the team who first sees a critically ill patient is completely separate from the transplant team. In every province across this country, brain death can only be declared by two physicians who have nothing to do with transplants. They are not aware that anyone is there as a potential donor until, in reality, the person is a donor and the family approves. There is no chance at all that someone will let someone else die just for the sake of an organ. There is no health professional in this country who does not want a live patient as compared to a potential donor.

Another barrier occurs after the donation. Will the body be mutilated? That is a big concern. The fact is, the body is treated with respect, with dignity. The retrieval is carried out in an operating room and, afterwards, there can be an open casket funeral and nobody knows that an organ donation has taken place unless the family chooses to disclose the fact.

We are talking about organs, but when you get a multi-organ donor, you can save and change the lives of 11 people. However, when you add in tissues, bones and eyes, one donor can change and save the lives of 55 people.

This bill is very important to get national discussions going. This bill has the full support of the organ donor community and the transplant community across the country. I will be happy to answer any questions you have.

The Chair: We need to commend you for bringing this bill before the House of Commons and here.

I did see a program the other day about a family who had lost a daughter and did not know anything about donating organs until it was brought to their attention. When they found out there was a possibility that their daughter could help someone else, it certainly relieved their grief. They realized that their daughter was going to help someone else to live.

Senator Cohen: Thank you for appearing here today. I do not think there should be anyone in Canada who would be against a National Organ Donor Week.

I was interested that, first of all, one death can change the lives of 55 people. That should be the slogan right across the country. That meant more to me than anything else I have heard.

It is interesting that you spoke about religion. I have been inquiring whether, in my religion of Judaism, we are allowed to participate. I believe very strongly in organ donation and I am on the burial committee in my community. Your comments on mutilation did answer that issue for me. I am still investigating whether it is okay from a Jewish perspective.

Ms Sherbin: I have a paper for you.

Senator Cohen: Please send it to me.

Is there a cut-off age for organ donors? Do they want 70-year-old livers?

Ms Sherbin: To tell you the truth, the oldest liver donor was 92 years old. They look at the health of the organ rather than the age of the donor. To be an organ donor, you have to be declared brain-dead, in the hospital already and on a ventilator. That is required because, although the person is dead, the ventilator keeps blood and oxygen flowing through the organs so that there is very little cell damage and their organs can be retrieved.

If someone dies at the scene of an accident, for instance, the blood and oxygen stops circulating, the cells are damaged and they cannot be transplanted. Only 2 to 3 per cent of all deaths in Canada can actually be organ donors. That is why it is so important to get the message across. When the opportunity arises, we want to make sure the medical people understand how important it is to identify these donors.

Senator Bosa: Am I right in understanding that if someone died from an automobile accident, right on the spot, then the organs of that person, if the family were willing to donate them, could not be accepted?

Ms Sherbin: The organs would not be usable but you would certainly be able to use the tissue such as eyes, bones and skin, but not the vital organs. They need blood and oxygen through them at the time of retrieval.

Senator Bosa: What led to you choose the last week in April for calling attention to this particular matter?

Mr. McTeague: The death of Stuart Herriot, a toddler from my riding, occurred in the third week of April 1994. It so happened the week he died is more or less recognized by most of those involved in transplantation as the week they would want to focus on that awareness.

The third week of April is always set aside, in a normative sense, for organ donor recognition. I should point out that the United States Congress has already acted to name that same week.

Senator Bosa: Would you say that, regardless of the age of the individual, the organs can be taken? In other words, the organs of senators could be used to give life to someone else?

Ms Sherbin: Yes, they certainly can. They look at the health of the organ, not the age of the donor. All the senators look very healthy.

Senator Bosa: Regardless of whether they are Liberals or Conservatives?

Mr. McTeague: Yes, blue blood or red blood!

Senator Bosa: I think this is a good bill. I do not see any problems with it. We will give this bill speedy passage.

Senator Forest: I, too, thank you for bringing this bill to our attention. Approximately 25 years ago, we had a personal experience in our family with a 17-year-old son who suffered from encephalitis. He was in a coma for a number of days and was not expected to live. I think the fact that we were able at that time to offer to donate his organs gave us a sense of peace. Miraculously, he recovered and has since often jokingly talked about his parents giving him away while he was still alive. For us, though, it was one of the most consoling aspects of a very difficult time.

We have been very proactive in this area since. I certainly appreciate the fact that if more people were aware of it, we would not be suffering from this dearth of organs for transplants. I am sure you will not find any controversy in passing this bill.

Mr. McTeague: Thank you.

I wanted to point out one interesting statistic that was provided to me, ironically, to show you how this issue transcends partisan considerations.

In 1995, in the province of Quebec alone, 375 people received the gift of life because 117 donated. That gives you an idea of the situation. We are not talking about a lot of people. As Ms Sherbin indicated in the beginning, if this bill has the ability to promote one transplant, there is the possibility, as this act is passed, that we may be saving more than just one life. We may be doing something the public would expect us to do as a team to demonstrate unity in life.


Senator Losier-Cool: I too wish to congratulate you. What is the transplant success rate?

Mr. McTeague: The organ transplant success rate is approximately 40 per cent. Mrs. Sherbin can give you additional details.


Ms Sherbin: For kidneys, the success rate is more than 90 per cent. For lives, it is in the 80-per-cent range. For hearts, it is about 85 per cent.

The lowest survival rates are among lungs. Lungs are most difficult to retrieve because only in 20 per cent of the cases are we able to get lungs in a donor retrieval because they are very delicate. They are also susceptible to infections after transplant. The success rate is about 75 per cent for lungs. You must keep in mind those transplants have only been going on for nine years. The first successful double lung transplant was in Canada and that person is still alive.


Mr. McTeague: Some organizations predict that by the year 2015, there will be a need for at least 1,000 transplants per year. Of course, we will have to make adjustments on all fronts to ensure that we increase the number of transplants in the country. We must act diligently, even if at first this seems relatively unimportant.


Senator Jessiman: When this bill was first introduced in the House of Commons, it was throughout Canada and, each and every year, April 21 was to be known under the name National Organ Donor Day. Was the response so great that you went for one week?

You mentioned the third week of April. Why did we choose the last week, so close to income tax time?

Mr. McTeague: That date commemorates the death of Stuart Herriot We have gone from one day to one week primarily because we felt we could throw out the dragnet a little further if we had this over one week.

As I mentioned earlier, the MORE people had always used that whole week as their understood week for raising organ and donor awareness. It was simply a question of amending it.

Senator Jessiman: You said it was the third week, though.

Ms Sherbin: It is the last complete week of April, which is usually the third week, but every seven years it is the fourth week. This way, we make it the last complete week.

Senator Jessiman: The last full week? All right.

Senator Cools: I think the issue before us is very straightforward. Basically, the bill is saying that a day, to be called the National Organ Donor Day, be created by statute, or the concept of it.

Basically, you are not asking for very much. You are asking that we set aside a week which shall be known as National Organ Donor Week.

The Chair: You have the old bill.

Senator Cools: It was amended? Good. Let me set it right for the record.

Throughout Canada, in each and every year, the last full week of April shall be known under the name of National Organ Donor Week. Very good.

To return to my point, you are not asking for very much at all. Basically, you are asking that Parliament, by statute, delegate a period of time of the year, which is already done by those who work in this community, to focus discussion, debate, thoughtfulness and reflection on this subject.

On the wider subject matter, though, there is a whole vast body of knowledge that is still unknown to large numbers of people in this country. One must consider the medical and political issues involved as well as legal and ethical concerns. Perhaps at some point in time our committee could undertake a study on some of these issues so that Parliament could become more acquainted with the problems, the needs and the possible legislative changes that may be required.

This is a vast subject matter. Anyone on this committee such as Dr. Bonnell, who has worked around hospitals, understands the constraints and the pressures under which nurses, doctors, families and parents work. I offer this as a general suggestion. This is not the time to look at these issues because this is basically a caring and concerned gesture, but our committee could conduct a study at some time in the near future to look at some of that subject matter. I would be quite interested to know, for example, how the Coroner's Act and the different acts play together.

I commend you and your colleague for this bill, Mr. McTeague

Senator Bosa: Why have you chosen the last full week in April? Did you do some research throughout Canada on whether this is in conflict with some other issues of a similarly appealing nature?

Mr. McTeague: You raise an interesting question. That was part of the debate in the House of Commons. There was an amendment originally in the bill to have it go from a National Organ Donor Day to a National Organ Donor Month. However, it was felt by the stakeholders that that would conflict with the Cancer Society and their drive throughout the month of April. The effort was scaled back to recognize that week as the week normally set aside by those in the field of promoting life through transplantation. There have been no adverse comments on taking that time aside.

If passed, the bill would allow a sort of platform on which we could begin to build other issues around Parliament and around the country.

One thing that Parliament might want to consider is recognizing, perhaps through an honour roll, with the consent of their families, those who give the gift of life.

Senator Bosa: Are you planning to promote municipalities proclaiming the last week in April as Organ Donor Week?


Mr. McTeague: Everything becomes possible once we have the consent of the House of Commons and the Senate. It is essential that we be able to show other levels of government the importance that Parliament, that is the House of Commons and the Senate, have attached to this bill by adopting it. We are exercising leadership in this area.


Senator Cohen: I noticed in the information before me that kidney transplants could save the provinces millions of dollars each year because they would do away with dialysis. Have you any strategy for including the provinces in your public relations work once this bill is proclaimed?

Perhaps we could get all the Members of Parliament in the House of Commons and all the senators to write to the governments of their respective provinces saying how much we are in favour of this week and that we hope they will initiate their own individual campaigns because it will benefit us all.

Ms Sherbin: That would be a very good idea because each province has its own organ donor transplant group which hosts a number of activities to celebrate the week. It is a very good suggestion to point out that it not only saves lives but also saves money.

Senator Cohen: We could also write "letters to the editor" saying how impressed we were with this presentation and with the idea of having this week proclaimed.

The Chair: As you may know, one of our senators has had a transplant. Senator Simard had a liver transplant. He is with us and well, and we are very thankful that someone was able to save his life at the last minute.

We thank you for appearing before the committee. It was important for to us hear the reasons behind the legislation.

Senator Bosa: I move that we report the bill without amendment.

The Chair: Is that agreed?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

The Chair: That is carried.

Shall I report the bill unamended?

Hon. Senators: Yes.

The Chair: That is carried. Thank you, witnesses and senators.

The committee adjourned.

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