The failure by registered organ donors to disclose their intentions to donate to their families – is causing a stumbling block for the growth of this kind of surgical procedure, which saves lives  

As Organ Donor Awareness Month comes to an end, the lack of donators continues to be a concern for doctors and organisations that work to bring awareness about this medical procedure in the country.   

According to the Western Cape Government, more than 4000 people are awaiting a life-saving organ or cornea transplant, however, the country has a mere 0.2% of registered organ donors. In addition to this, South Africa has one of the lowest rates of deceased organ donations in the world with merely one in four donors per million population. 

Dr Sharan Rambarran from the transplant clinic at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre explained that there are various factors contributing to the low number, including religious and cultural.  

However, even those factors considered, being a registered donor means nothing if the giver is not having the necessary conversations with their loved ones. This is because the organ donation system in South Africa uses an “opt-in” approach — meaning regardless of whether an individual is a registered organ donor or has their wishes to be a donor expressed in their will, their family would have to consent to the donation.  

“You can be registered with every association, you can be signed up on every organ donor registry, ultimately when you are declared brain dead your family have the last say as to whether or not you can be an organ donor,” said Rambarran.   

Dr Sharan Rambarran in his office at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre Transplant Unit after discussing the various factors which contribute to the low number of registered donors in South Africa.

Photo: Terri-Ann Brouwers

The president of Save Seven Jonty Wright, and vice-president, Naazim Nagdee said they have since learned that this problem can be avoided if interested donors can inform their loved ones about their intentions to donate.  

“We ran a small survey and realised that over 90% of our peers didn’t know this simple fact and that’s a part of why young people don’t sign-up, it seems complex and time-consuming when it is actually not,” said the pair that works to raise awareness around organ donation.  

Tanya Bothma (43) has experienced both ends of the spectrum. Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela, she said in December 2017, she had a double lung transplant after living with a chronic lung disease since birth. It was the first transplant of its kind to be done anywhere in Africa. However, five months prior to her transplant, Tanya lost her brother in a paragliding accident. Her brother was an organ donor and although his organs were unable to be harvested, he was able to donate tissue and help 26 people in need.  

The sad reality is not every story ends like Bothmas. Jessie Ann Losper faced a different reality when her husband was diagnosed with stage four renal kidney failure in 2020. 

Although Losper was a match for her husband, he died before the transplant could take place. Losper said this was an eye-opening experience for her as she got a first-hand encounter of what the people in need of transplants and their families go through.  

“Not many are as fortunate as we were to find a donor. Donors are desperately needed for many. During Taariqs’ (her husband) time at the hospital we met so many people who have been on the programme even longer than him and are depressed and hopeless because they have no support from family or friends.” She continued, “Loved ones have abandoned them because of them not being able to be as active as they once were, to earn salaries, even because of the level of care they sometimes need. It’s heart-wrenching to see and know.”  

After experiencing both ends of the spectrum Bothma pleads with the public, “Please have the conversation with your family members about donating your organs after you have died, to save more lives like mine.” 

Infographic: Six facts about organ donation

FEATURED IMAGE: A Wits student registering to become an organ donor on the Organ Donation Foundation website. Photo: Terri-Ann Brouwers