Registering as an organ donor eases pain of difficult decision for families

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 4:50am

One of the most distressing aspects of Tong Yuen-fan's job as a transplant co-ordinator is seeing families agonise over whether or not to donate their loved one's organs.

This was the case in one out of six donation refusals in Hong Kong last year.

Calling on people to make their feelings clear by registering as donors, Tong said it not only saved lives but also spared their family members the pain of a difficult decision.

She said that that decision often caused grieving families "more struggles and worries".

"They are already in pain over the passing of a loved one," Tong said.

In her 14 years as a co-ordinator who approaches families of possible donors, usually brain-dead patients, she had seen many families who wanted to make the donation but had reservations, worrying they would be doing it against the deceased's will.

"Some would say to me, 'I'm sorry, we can't do it this time. But I can sign a donation card now and donate mine in the future'."

It was also important that people let their family members know after they have signed a donation card, she said.

Tong, who works in New Territories East public hospitals, said some family members came back to her saying they regretted not donating, after they found a registration card signed by the deceased later on.

In a recent case in which a middle-aged man died of a stroke, his two sons were caught between relatives opposed to the donation and their own belief that their father would want to help others.

After much communication back and forth and a lot of distress, the family finally compromised on donating some but not all of the organs.

"I was happy to see this ending. I told them, when the chance is gone, it's lost. And not everyone has this chance," Tong said.

The decision has to be made quickly as organs can be donated only while they are still viable.

In Hong Kong last year, only about 120 people who died were suitable as solid organ donors.

The consent rate by family members was 47 per cent, and about half of those who refused said that they wanted to keep the body intact.

"We always respect their decisions," Tong said.

Some, especially mothers and wives, worried that donating the organs would alter the body's appearance. Many were relieved after seeing the minimal effect on the body after donation.

"I remember one who even hugged and thanked me for helping them make the donation, when it should be me thanking them," she said.

"It is not an easy decision to make, but many have felt comfort from it afterwards."