I HAVE a confession, and it isn’t easy for me to say — I am an Offspring fan.
Every Wednesday night I would sit down with my wife and watch the adventures of neurotic Nina, a young Melbourne obstetrician and the show’s protagonist. Initially I was “forced” but, have to admit, I actually grew to like it.
For those of you living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, the penultimate episode of season four aired earlier this month and caused quite a stir. They killed Patrick — heart-throb, popular anaesthetist and Nina’s partner. It was a random tragedy.
As a 30-year-old Melbourne anaesthetist, I particularly felt the senseless loss of Patrick but that was not the real controversy, although Offspring enthusiasts will agree that Jimmy — Nina’s vacuous brother — should have died instead.
What really disappointed me was how poorly and inaccurately Offspring handled the topic of organ donation.
It was an opportunity missed.
Mass media has an audience that many in health can only dream of. Media can speak to millions whereas doctors speak to only a few at a time. Impressions created by media underpin many of the conversations doctors have with patients.
So it’s important that the media gets it right, and doesn’t create angst where none is due. In fact, it’s not just important, it’s a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.
Patrick was knocked down by a slow-moving car and bumped his head. Initially he was OK, but lost consciousness some time after and was rushed to hospital. He subsequently died, having apparently suffered a subdural haemorrhage, but the pathology is mostly unimportant in the way this episode failed to grapple with the issue of organ donation.
The scene was set by a surgeon who brusquely appeared in the waiting room to break the bad news of Patrick’s death to a heavily pregnant Nina, and disappeared just as quickly. No introduction. No explanation. No empathy.
The conversation about organ donation occurred in the open waiting room some time later with a transplant coordinator who was portrayed as a clipboard-carrying vulture on a tight schedule.
“How we going?” she asked, as Nina bid her tearful farewell to Patrick.
“Just one more minute”, came the sobbing, pleading response.
This is not what it’s like.
I am not a transplant or organ donation expert, however I have completed my anaesthesia training in a transplant centre. During that time I’ve been involved in many family discussions about donation and in the transplants themselves.
Transplant coordinators and the entire team of professionals devoted to organ and tissue transplantation are among the most dedicated and sensitive that I’ve ever worked with. As well, Australia’s outcomes following organ and tissue transplantation are among the best anywhere.
Despite this, Australia has one of the lowest uptakes of organ donation in the developed world — which is why it’s so crucial to present accurate information in the popular media.
This episode of Offspring was watched by 1.7 million people, and it was the top-trending topic on Twitter after the show. This no doubt did wonders for Channel Ten’s ratings but it also gave a lot of people the wrong idea about organ donation.
Australia has some outstanding resources available to the public explaining the facts and realities of organ donation. The Australian Government initiative, DonateLife, and the non-government-organisation, Transplant Australia, both have accessible and factual information. It’s safe to say that 1.7 million Australians did not view this information while watching Offspring.
In any controversy lies opportunity. This presents us all an opportunity to talk about organ donation with our patients — and our friends and family for that matter — before tragedy strikes.
Organ donation and transplantation saves lives. If handled well — the way it overwhelmingly is in real life — organ donation gives hope to thousands of recipients and their families. It also has the potential to provide purpose for families of people struck down, like Patrick, by tragedy.
Discussing this in advance will never make the decision to donate easy, but it might make it easier.
We are fortunate in Australia to have such a safe and successful publicly funded organ transplantation program. Doctors know this. Let’s take the opportunity to make sure our patients know this too.
Dr Simon Hendel is an anaesthesia fellow completing a fellowship in aeromedical retrieval in remote North Queensland.