A decade of impactful conversations with students about organ donation

Registered nurse Bee-Jay Realubit was recognized with the Shining Star Award for his work in supporting conversations about organ donation with youth. (Photo: Courtesy HSOI team)

“It has been an amazing tool to get my students engaged in Biology class. But it really comes to life when they meet someone who had a transplant or engage with a health care professional involved in this field,” says Ben Meagher, a teacher at St. Joseph’s College School in Toronto.

Ben has participated in the High School Outreach Initiative (HSOI) almost from its start, a decade ago. His students are part of more than 41,000 high school students who were reached by the program.

“I think we’re really making a difference in getting youth to realize there is a need for people to commit to organ donation,” Ben added, saying he plans to continue to participate and bring presentations about organ donation to his students as long as he can.

“We’re bringing hope to those who need a transplant.”

The program is delivered in partnership by University Health Network’s Ajmera Transplant Centre and the transplant programs at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and St. Michaels Hospital, part of Unity Health, under the University of Toronto Transplant Institute. Supported by Trillium Gift of Life Network at Ontario Health, the HSOI has been a pioneer in expanding education efforts to youth about organ donation.

During this year’s National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week (NOTDAW), UHN is celebrating this program and sharing the milestones the program has reached.

Over the course of a decade, the HSOI has delivered presentations to more than 400 classrooms and over 100 assemblies in 150 participating schools across the GTA.

“Students are captivated by personal stories of transplant recipients,” says Clayton Ellis, a teacher form the Peel District School Board, who joined the HSOI in 2017.

“This transplant presentation is one of these meaningful events that students talk about long after they’ve left the classroom.”

“Despite myself being so lucky to have received a life-saving organ, I wanted to be that voice for my buddies back at SickKids,” says Lauren Fichman, 22, who received a liver transplant at age 15 and now volunteers with the HSOI. (Photo: Courtesy Lauren Fichman)

Today’s high school students are tomorrow’s leaders

In presentations to the students – held both in-person and virtually throughout the pandemic – clinicians, surgeons, social workers, transplant pharmacists, physiotherapists, nurses, clinical and surgical fellows, and so many other health care professionals and organ donation advocates, introduce the topic to students and offer the space to have frank conversations and ask questions.

Students also have the unique opportunity to talk to transplant recipients and advocates with first-hand experience of the life-saving impact that every organ donor can have.

Clinical Transplant Fellow Dr. Darshan Brahmbhatt says delivering presentations to students has been “one of the fun parts of his work.”

A couple of decades ago, a transplant surgeon spoke at Dr. Brahmbhatt’s school in the United Kingdom, and he says that inspired him to pursue a career in health care and in transplantation.

“It’s great to be able to give back,” he says.

“Today’s high school students are tomorrow’s leaders, and starting the conversation about organ donation sets up a number of conversations at home, stimulating these discussions, which are really important to help us continue to do transplants, due to the generous gifts of the donors.”

Lauren Fichman, a liver transplant recipient who is now 22 years old, started volunteering with the HSOI after receiving her transplant at 15.

“Despite myself being so lucky to have received a life-saving organ, I wanted to be that voice for my buddies back at SickKids who were still waiting for their second chance at life,” she says.

“I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to share my story, and start the conversation that encourages others to learn how impactful donation is.”

Celebration event

The 10-year anniversary celebration event recognized leaders and volunteers who made the HSOI possible. Watch a recording of the celebration

Bee-Jay Realubit, a registered nurse with the Ajmera Transplant Centre, was recognized with the Shining Star Award, for his work in supporting the conversations with youth.

Dr. Vicky Ng, Medical Director of the Liver Transplant Program at SickKids and the HSOI lead, said during the virtual event that the program was brought together in 2012 “by a common belief in the power of youth.

“Raising and enhancing knowledge is power, combined with the power of youth,” she said. “And fast forward to 2022, our volunteers have connected with over 40,000 students, across over 150 schools.

“This unique program has been successful beyond our dreams, reaching thousands and thousands of students.”

Dr. Atul Humar, Director of the University of Toronto Transplant Institute and of the Ajmera Transplant Centre at UHN, added: “And we know many of these students will be tomorrow’s transplant champions, conveying this important message to their families and loved ones.”

In a message to the HSOI team, Dr. Kevin Smith, UHN President and CEO, said UHN is proud to participate in the program and to help normalize important conversations around organ donation.

“My sincere thanks to all who take time to speak to youth and increase awareness to transplant and organ donation,” said Dr. Smith.

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