I rise today to speak briefly on the Australian Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation Authority Amendment (Governance and Other Measures) Bill 2021, and to highlight the important work of organ donation and transplantation, the work of health professionals in this field and the generosity of so many families. I do this because it is an issue that is so close to me.
Many, many years ago, as a young nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital, I had the great honour of working in the early days of renal transplantation in that hospital. I saw the sacrifice of some incredible families. I guess what struck me, really, was the intersection of the science and the silence—the science that brought us to the moments of being able to transplant organs and to bring new life to other people, and the extraordinary silence and respect at the point at which that transplantation occurred. I will never forget being in an operating theatre at the time when that happened. So the aim of this bill is to allow the board a greater strategic focus to provide expertise and advice to the work of the Organ and Tissue Authority. As we’ve heard, there’s bipartisan support for this.
Australia leads the world for successful organ and tissue transplantation, and 1,800 Australians are currently waitlisted for an organ transplant. Nine out of 10 families agreed to donation if their family member was registered on the Australian Organ Donor Register. One organ and tissue donor can transform the lives of many people. Our donation rate has more than doubled in recent years, but there’s so much more that we can do. As the member before me just said, 2020 was a challenging year for the national program, with COVID-19 having a direct impact on the organ donation and transplant numbers. There are around 1,800 Australians currently waitlisted for a transplant and more than 12,000 additional people on dialysis, many who may need a kidney transplant. In 2020, 1,270 Australian lives were saved through an organ transplant due to the generosity of 463 deceased organ donors and their families. Since the national program began in 2009 there have been 14,352 organ transplant recipients from 5,029 deceased organ donors.
But organ donation is a rare event. Only around two per cent of people who die in Australian hospitals—that’s approximately 1,300—meet the required criteria to be an organ donor. Our hospitals follow world’s best practice, with specialist doctors and nurses supporting donation and transplantation in 95 hospitals across Australia. One in three Australians are registered donors despite the majority, 69 per cent, believing that registering is important. But in 2020 there was a 12 per cent decrease in the number of people receiving a transplant and a 16 per cent decrease in the number of donors compared to 2019. COVID affects us in ways we don’t even think about, and this is one. Now more than ever, we need more Australians to say yes to organ donation.
Just over a week ago it was DonateLife Week. That’s a program run by the Australian government’s Organ and Tissue Authority that we are speaking about today. DonateLife is supported by agencies in every state and territory. It’s a public awareness initiative that encourages Australians to register as organ and tissue donors. It was the 10th annual DonateLife Week. But we don’t need a special week to register to be an organ donor; we can do it at any time of night or day. If the moment comes where that registration is called upon, it’s often the incredible work of a nurse donation specialist to have that conversation with the families of the person registered at what is a most tragic and terribly difficult time.
I would like to highlight the work of nurse donation specialists, some of whom work in my electorate of Indi. These nurses are funded by DonateLife. Their work starts well before a registered donor ever makes it to the healthcare system. These nurses provide multidisciplinary educational services on organ and tissue donation for all hospital staff that come in contact with the donation process. They promote community awareness and understanding about organ and tissue donation. They improve the identification of potential organ and tissue donors in the hospital through early referral to DonateLife. They work with hospital teams to ensure that 100 per cent of potential donors are identified and that their registration is optimised. They support families considering organ and tissue donation in end-of-life care and they collect data and audit material, and report this back to DonateLife.
At Northeast Health Wangaratta, Nurse Joanne Hymus told me about her former role as a donation specialist nurse. She used to educate clinicians on identifying potential organ and tissue donors in our region. She so often spoke to families and offered information and gained their consent, and she would have done that so sensitively and carefully and scientifically. She worked in the critical care unit to prepare the potential donors for organ surgery which occurred locally at Northeast Health, and she liaised with transplantation teams so that everything ran smoothly. She held community events to highlight the importance of organ and tissue donations and to help people sign up—people who may have had problems getting online and doing so. Joanne told me what a deeply satisfying and important job this was to her. She felt so deeply for the families who, on the worst days of their lives, are asked to make a very important decision. It can make that terrible day just that little bit easier when you know that a loved one’s wishes about donation are carefully supported and that their legacy can transform the lives of up to nine other people.
At Albury Wodonga Health, specialist nurses Anna Jagoe and Helen McKee have similar responsibilities for this role. Helen told me that Albury Wodonga Health is one of the leading areas in the state for organ donations and that their work means it is very rare to miss a registered donor should that opportunity occur for a donation. She too spoke of the enormous support they give to family, and described how much of a relief it is that, in rural areas such as ours, families no longer need to travel to a large centre like Melbourne for this surgery to take place. That means families can stay with their loved ones right until that final moment. As I said, COVID has impacted on many of the events that these organ donation nurses undertake, and some of the available funding for their roles, sadly, has been cut. We’ve lost three organ donation specialist nurses in Victoria alone.
Let me conclude by just going through a few facts and myths. If you’ve ever considered organ donation and delayed becoming a donor, you have done so probably because you have some uncertainty. So, firstly, it’s a myth to think that you may not be healthy enough to donate because of your lifestyle choices. People who smoke, drink or have an unhealthy diet can still register as an organ and tissue donor. You don’t have to be in perfect health to save a life. It’s a myth to think that being registered just on your drivers licence is all you need to do. Only in South Australia, as the member talked about before, can you register to be a donor via your drivers licence. In every other state and territory you need to register online with donatelife.gov.au/register. If you’re unsure if you’re already registered, go online and check.
It’s also a myth that some people are concerned it’s better just to let the family decide at the time. It’s absolutely not. If you want to become an organ donor or a tissue donor, please register and tell your family. They’re twice as likely, the stats tell us, to help you become a donor if you tell them that you want to. Another myth is that only the young and healthy can be donors. The truth is that age is not a barrier; people over 80 become organ and tissue donors. It’s also a myth that organ donation disfigures the body of the person who donates. Organ donation is specialist surgery that is done respectfully and skilfully and does not disfigure the body. A final myth is that religions don’t support organ and tissue donation. The truth is that all major religions support organ and tissue donation and see it as the ultimate gift of giving. So, if you’re unsure if you’re registered, please go to DonateLife online and check.
Finally, I want to thank all the amazing health professionals right across our nation who do this work. I want to thank everyone who’s registered to be an organ or tissue donor. Mostly, though, I want to thank the families of the donors. Your generosity is completely incalculable.