Wellington drivers more likely to donate organs

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 21/07/2014
Gary Whitaker and daughter Kaitlin
GIFT OF LIFE: Gary Whitaker and daughter Kaitlin, 15, with photos of Ayla, who died after being hit by a car in 2006. Her family agreed to donate her organs after the 17-year-old was declared brain dead.
Brian Williams
FOREVER GRATEFUL: Brian Williams received a donated liver in 2009, and later met his donor’s family to express his thanks. ‘‘I’m really, really well, and I’m grateful.’’
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People from Wellington and Queenstown are more likely to indicate "yes" to organ donation on their driving licences, while those in Wairoa and Kawerau will probably say "no".

Information provided by the NZ Transport Agency has revealed an almost even split when it comes to ticking the box and leaving it blank.

But drivers in certain regions are far more likely to say yes than others, and Queenstown-Lakes district residents have the highest proportion, with 66.2 per cent indicating they were organ donors.

Wellington was not far behind at 62 per cent, while Kapiti Coast was also high at 59.4 per cent.

At the other end of the scale, Wairoa recorded the lowest level, just 31.4 per cent indicating they were donors. Kawerau was just above at 33.7 per cent, while Opotiki was at 36.2 per cent.

The data does not give a complete picture - for example, not everyone has a driving licence - but it is the only record of donor indication available.

Unlike some countries, New Zealand does not have an organ donor registry; instead, it asks people to indicate their preference when they gain or renew their licence.

But even with this indication, the final decision rests with a dead person's family, who can decline the donation no matter what the licence says. In New Zealand, 1.75 million people say they are donors but last year only 36 families agreed to donate their loved ones' organs.

Organ Donation NZ clinical director Stephen Streat said this was not because of an unwillingness to donate, but rather the strict criteria that must be met.

It was a common misconception that, if someone died in a car crash they could donate their organs. This was usually impossible, as death almost always had to occur when a person was in hospital on a ventilator.

Because of this, most donations were made from patients who were brain dead but there were only 0.5 per cent of such deaths, he said.

Most donations were from brain haemorrhages or swelling to the brain from accidents in which the patients were transported to hospital alive but had no chance of recovery.

Strict protocols were followed, with the family's wishes always top priority, but speed was essential and usually retrieval took place within 12 hours of brain death, with a transplant happening within a day.

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About half the families faced with the decision agreed to donation - a proportion similar to the licence indication figures.

Organ Donation NZ discouraged contact between a donor's family and recipients but did facilitate anonymous letters between the two parties.

While cultural beliefs have been suggested as affecting organ donation decisions, Streat said the focus was on each individual situation as it arose, and donation was offered to every eligible person.

"It's not about religion, culture or ethnicity - it's about individuals."

TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY

A DONOR

Teenager Ayla Whitaker had dreams of becoming a nurse and working with children, but they were dashed when she was hit by a car while she was riding her bike.

The 17-year-old, a year 12 student at Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt, was declared brain dead after the 2006 accident. Her family were told she was a candidate for organ donation and were faced with an immediate decision.

Father Gary Whitaker said it was a relatively easy choice as, along with the excellent support they received from medical staff, the family had a clear picture of what their daughter would have wanted.

Perhaps surprisingly, the family had discussed Ayla's wishes about donation before her death, when she got her restricted licence and had to indicate her preference.

Her cousin, Cassie, had earlier been sick with leukaemia and was seeking a bone marrow donor, which Ayla was keen to do. Cassie died before that could happen but Ayla firmly told her parents the experience meant she wanted to help other people if she could.

"She said, ‘If I can help people if anything happens to me, then I'm only too happy to do so.'

"She didn't have the greatest eyesight, so she said if they want my eyes they have to take my glasses as well."

The talk was taken lightly, but in hindsight it was a "wonderful" conversation to have had and made the decision much easier, he said.

"At the time when these questions are being asked of you, you're in a horrible place."

Deciding to donate a loved one's organs was a deeply personal decision, but Whitaker encouraged families to have the discussion to help them if the unthinkable happened. "I couldn't stress that enough, it's not just a conversation to have with your children, it's a conversation children have to have with their parents."

A RECIPIENT

When Wellington bus driver Brian Williams was finally told he was on the waiting list for a liver, he did not expect to be in hospital the next day.

After being diagnosed with liver cancer, Williams was called up to Auckland in 2009 to undergo a week of testing to assess his suitability for a transplant. Deemed eligible, he was told it would be at least three months before a match was found, and went back to his hotel.

But about six hours later he was called to say that an organ had become available, and to prepare for surgery.

"Of course at that time it was still going around in my head, ‘Do I want to do this?'

"I thought I would have more time to digest . . . in fact when they rang me, I thought it was a joke and I hung up on the person."

After being ignored a few more times, the hospital rang Williams' wife and reality sank in.

"I was worried I'm 59, I'm at the end of my time. Because they're rare, I thought should someone else have a go at it."

Being Maori, Williams' cultural beliefs also shed some doubt on whether to proceed but now, alive and healthy, he has no regrets and is forever thankful for his second chance.

He has met his donor's family and said it was something that was essential for him to do to express the gratitude he felt. "I know that for me to live someone had to die, it's as simple as that.

"It was very important for me after receiving a gift of life like I did to say thank you. It's against the rules . . . but I felt so strongly that I had to, because I'm very well, I'm really, really well, and I'm grateful."

- The Dominion Post

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