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Organ donation week: Tissue donation often overlooked, but important, docs say

Krysten Siba Bishop was only 26 years old when she tested positive for the BRCA gene that puts her at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Krysten Siba Bishop was only 26 years old when she tested positive for the BRCA gene that puts her at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Photo courtesy Krysten Siba Bishop

TORONTO – Skin, bones, heart valves and corneas – these tissue donation options go a long way in helping donor recipients in need.

Corneas restore vision to people who’ve lost their eyesight, heart valves help babies born with congenital heart disease while skin is used to heal burn victims. A single tissue donor can touch as many as 75 lives yet this form of donation is often overlooked.

“Tissue transplantation is not life-saving but it improves quality of life. A liver, lung or heart transplant is clearly giving someone a second chance so the population identifies with that as a pressing need,” Dr. Atul Humar, director of Toronto General Hospital’s multi-organ transplant program, told Global News.

“But all types of donation helps to save lives or dramatically improve the quality of life of a recipient,” he said.

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READ MORE: #48in48 – Join Global News to sign up 48,000 organ donors in 48 hours

Tissue donation works differently from organ donation. For starters, only a certain number of patients who die are eligible to be organ donors because their organs have to be in good standing. For tissue donation, generally anyone who dies within 24 hours can be a donor if consent is obtained.

The procedure is fast and incredibly respectful, according to Dr. Sonny Dhanani, the chief medical officer at the Trillium Gift of Life Network.

“The goal is to not impact the end-of-life bereavement process,” he said.

READ MORE: One family’s brave story of love, loss and helping others through organ donation

A trained specialist takes the heart valves, corneas, skin, bone and connective tissue – it’s all stored in a tissue bank and allocated to those who need it.

The tissue is cleaned and screened for infections so that when the recipient in need receives the tissue, it’s easily incorporated to his or her own body and there isn’t worry of rejection unlike organ transplants.

The demand for tissue donors is just as high as organ donors, Dhanani warned.

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READ MORE: How one woman’s organs saved six lives

Bone is used to cure injured legs, for reconstructing knees, legs or if other areas, like the spine, need to be replaced.

Krysten Siba Bishop was only 26 years old when she tested positive for the BRCA gene that puts her at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

A year later, she had a bilateral mastectomy. But Siba Bishop lives with a pacemaker because of a heart condition – the device made breast reconstruction after the surgery tricky.

That’s where donor tissue came in: tissue stripped of its previous DNA acted as a buffer to expand her chest wall between her pacemaker and her implants that had a magnetic port.

READ MORE: Little girl’s organs her ‘final gift to the world’ following car crash

Without donor tissue, she says she would’ve had a harder decision in deciding to get a double mastectomy. She documented her journey through diagnosis through to recovery after her double mastectomy here. Siba Bishop says her blog has been shared as a resource for other women going through the same procedures.

“It’s a very big change to make to your body especially in your 20s so there was conflict involved,” she told Global News.

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“Reconstruction is what I wanted to feel as much like myself as possible – tissue donation made that possible, there wasn’t going to be another option for me,” she explained.

READ MORE: Is social media the latest frontier in organ donation?

Read more about tissue donation here.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca