CHEO-led study examines dying process to inform organ donation

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Early in their work, researchers turned to a Toronto woman, Heather Talbot, the mother of an organ donor, for help in understanding how to approach families in ICUs about taking part in the unusual study. Her advice helped to secure a 93 per cent consent rate among the families of dying patients.

Talbot’s son, Jonathon, 22, was declared brain dead in March 2009 following a car accident; his donated kidneys, liver and lungs helped save the lives of four people. “It turns something terrible into something good,” Talbot said of organ donation.

More than 4,000 Canadians are now on waiting lists for an organ transplant.

Dhanani said the study was motivated by the desire to use science to dispel some of the popular myths about patients “coming back to life” after being removed from life support and flatlining. “We think some of the stories were impacting people’s comfort level with the donation process,” he said.

Time is a critical element in the organ donation process. Once a heart stops beating, the body’s organs are no longer being perfused with blood, and any organ that goes without that supply for more than 10 minutes is usually unsuitable for transplant, Dhanani said.

In Ontario, there is no law that establishes how to determine circulatory or neurological death. In 2019, the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled that while death is not defined in law, common law considers someone dead when there is the irreversible cessation of either cardiorespiratory or brain function.

Organ donation is governed by the “dead donor rule,” an ethical and legal requirement that says organ removal cannot be the cause of a donor’s death.

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