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A high school outreach program by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), UHN and St. Michael's Hospital recently reached a milestone – educating 30,000 students in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Transplant physicians, surgeons, nurses and allied health professionals from all three hospital transplant programs volunteer their time to talk to GTA high school students about the importance of organ and tissue donation, why transplants are needed and how they can transform patients' lives.
"These presentations to eager high school students, who talk about it with their families and friends, ensure that many more people are aware of how they can help to save lives through organ donation," said Dr. Atul Humar, Medical Director of the UHN Transplant Program, and Director of the Toronto Transplant Institute.
"We see the vital impact of both deceased and living donors as we care for those who need and receive a transplant every day."
Each year, Ontario performs more than 1,000 life-saving solid organ transplants – the highest of any province or territory in Canada. Yet the rates of organ donation and registration in the GTA are one of the lowest in the world.
While Ontario has been steadily increasing in new registrations for organ donation in the past decade, surpassing a 30 per cent registration rate milestone in 2016-17, there is variation among cities in the province.
For example, North Bay, Parry Sound and Sudbury have registration rates of more than 50 per cent. Other GTA cities have much lower rates: Mississauga (20 per cent), Brampton (17 per cent) and Markham (14 per cent). Overall, the GTA has an average registration rate of 23 per cent; Ottawa and Hamilton are both at 36 per cent.
Toronto students do not have much prior knowledge of organ donation
Launched in 2011 by SickKids staff, the High School Outreach Initiative (HSOI) aims to help improve the GTA rate by reaching out to high school students to talk about organ and tissue donation, transplantation and what they can do for patients.
Over the past seven years, dozens of staff members from SickKids, UHN, St. Michael's Hospital (SMH) and Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN) have volunteered for 421 presentations. Thanks to funding from TGLN, Ashley's Angels Fund and The Organ Project, the initiative has thrived and reached thousands of young people.
Dr. Vicky Ng, Staff Gastroenterologist and Medical Director of the Liver Transplant Program, and Stephanie So, Physiotherapist at SickKids, joined forces with Andrea Norgate, Pancreas Transplant Coordinator at UHN, and Galo Meliton, Post-Transplant Coordinator at SMH to broaden the initiative.
Their plan was to initiate classroom presentations delivered by a transplant healthcare professional, along with a transplant recipient or donor family, and a member from TGLN.
"Today's youth are tomorrow's leaders, and our observations are that Toronto students do not have much prior knowledge about organ donation," said Dr. Ng, who is also a Professor, Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto.
"Research shows that in-school classroom teaching is a very feasible way to teach teens from multiple cultures and backgrounds about organ donation and transplantation.
"Our speakers are reporting amazing engagement, inquisitive questions, and vibrant dialogue after each presentation. Students take home materials that they can share with their family to continue the conversation and share what they've learned."
Last month, Dr. Joseph Kim, Medical Co-Director of the Kidney Program, UHN Transplant Program, and liver transplant recipient Ed Van Gennip, presented to about 100 students at St. Mother Teresa Catholic Academy in Scarborough.
The presentation marked a total of 30,000 students educated since the launch of the initiative in 2011.
Dr. Kim began his presentation with a challenge: "On average, every three days in Ontario someone dies while waiting for a vital organ. No one should die while waiting.
"How do we make this a thing of the past? How do we change this?"
Ed Van Gennip, 56, then talked about his personal journey through transplant, and how without it, his wife would have been left alone to care for their three children.
"I'm very thankful that my life was saved by a generous donor and the excellent expertise in our healthcare system," said Ed, who received two liver transplants at Toronto General Hospital.
"I want everyone to know that donating organs makes a huge difference to people like me. A recipient can be healthy and active and lead a good life. I am proof of that."
Kereisha Biggs, 17, a Grade 12 student at St. Mother Teresa, was deeply touched by how much Ed's life was changed by the generosity of a deceased donor and the donor's family in ensuring that the donation was carried out.
"Although organ donation may seem distant, I have the power to make even a small change, like registering to be an organ donor," she said. "Today's talk has encouraged me to have the discussion about it with my family and friends because, together, I know we can make a difference."
Michelle Paolini, who teaches World Issues at St. Mother Teresa, believes this education and discussions about after-life decisions should be open, and not taboo.
"Giving another person the gift of life is often very comforting when grieving the loss of a loved one," Michelle said. "Unfortunately, teenagers are beginning to experience such losses so there is no better time for considering organ donation and the necessary conversations that go along with it."
The presenting teams also bust some common myths about transplants and organ donation.
One prevalent myth is that a signed donor card is all you need to become a donor. But donor cards are no longer in use. Everyone should consider registering online at
beadonor.ca or in person at any ServiceOntario location to ensure that their decision is recorded.
'Reaching a new generation of Ontarians who can change lives'
And, everyone needs to speak to their families to ensure that their wishes are known and respected should the need arise.
Canadian Medical Association Journal commentary noted that in 2015, 21 per cent of families of registered donors refused donation in Ontario, and that many provincial and territorial agencies, and organ donation organizations in Canada, indicate on their websites that families' wishes can take priority over a deceased donor's consent.
The tri-hospital team looks forward to continuing their education program.
"We are very proud of the collaboration between our three hospitals to reach young communities," says Dr. Jeff Zaltzman, a Transplant Nephrologist at the Renal Transplant Program at SMH.
"The easiest way for us to increase the amount of registered organ donors is to raise awareness of the power of organ donation. Through this program, we are reaching a new generation of Ontarians who can change lives. We're excited about this milestone and look forward to many more to come."
School staff can
read more about booking a presentation at their school by a healthcare professional. Presentations can be booked throughout the school year from September to June. For any inquiries, please contact Anna Cocco, Education Coordinator, UHN Transplant Program at 416-340-4800 ext. 6315.