The teenager was always tired, going to bathroom a lot and experiencing muscle cramps. She figured she was just out of shape, but she was wrong. Alissa was diagnosed with aggressive kidney disease.

The following year, she received a new kidney — one donated by Adrienne Charlie, a single mother whom she had met at a Vancouver college and come to regard as a mother figure. Alissa is among the fortunate few.

Almost 75 percent of the more than 4,500 Canadians on the waiting list for an organ transplant are waiting for a kidney. Recent statistics indicate a third of the people who died while waiting for organs were waiting for a kidney — and the need for kidneys exceeds the supply. The Kidney Foundation of Canada wants to change that, and is aiming to increase kidney transplants by 50 percent in the next five years.

To that end, The Kidney Foundation of Canada, BC & Yukon Branch recently held the first-ever Kidney Transplant Summit, in Vancouver. Experts there debated several controversial subjects including presumed consent, a system in which citizens are presumed to have agreed that their organs may be used for transplantation after their death. Additional dialogues will continue. Simply put, says Executive Director Karen Philp, “We need to hear what people think.”

Low organ donor rate in Canada

A jury deliberated then recommended that, to increase the number of kidney transplants in BC, the province consider adopting presumed consent legislation with safeguards allowing an individual to opt out of the system and allowing family members of an incapacitated individual to override his or her stated consent to donation.

"Canada has one of the lowest organ donor rates among industrialized countries with about 15.7 donors per million people. Spain, on the other hand, is a leader in organ donations with about 35.1 donors per million people."

Canada has one of the lowest organ donor rates among industrialized countries with about 15.7 donors per million people. Spain, on the other hand, is a leader in organ donations with about 35.1 donors per million people. That success is widely attributed to Spain’s presumed consent law, which was enacted in 1979.

As The Kidney Foundation continues to pursue its goal to raise organ donor rates, additional public awareness activities and advocacy initiatives will unfold across the country.

The Kidney Foundation of Canada asks volunteers to encourage the government to make it easier to register as an organ donor, to remove financial barriers to donations and to support campaigns that raise awareness of the seriousness of kidney failure and the need for more donors.

Health care changes could help boost organ donations

Changes to the health care system might also help boost donation rates, says Dr. Julian Midgley, National President of The Kidney Foundation and a Pediatric Nephrologist at Alberta Children’s Hospital, Calgary. Among these are providing more intensive care beds to patients and donors, introducing transplant coordinators in more hospitals, and establishing an efficient system in hospitals of auditing potential donors .

Dr. Midgley also emphasizes the need for more awareness. For example, he says, many people believe that to be considered organ donors upon death all they have to do is sign a wallet card about organ donation — but that’s not true. In many provinces, individuals must register consent through official government identification such as a driver’s licence or health card, or complete an online registration process.

“It is equally important for individuals to share their wishes with their family members,” said Dr. Midgley. “Not only does this ensure people understand someone’s personal decision about organ donation, but it introduces this important topic so families can talk about it.”

If The Kidney Foundation of Canada obtains its goals to increase organ donor rates, we’ll be hearing more stories like Alissa’s. Now a graduate from Simon Fraser University, she leads a busy life that includes coaching badminton and a job at a big Canadian bank. Down the road, she plans to get more involved in Aboriginal Sport, Recreation and Physical Activity Partners Council. Busy as she is, Alissa hasn’t lost sight of her good fortune. “I got so lucky in so many ways,” she says. “It’s still shocking to me.”