Feb. 12, 2024

UCalgary professor aims to level the playing field for Indigenous organ transplant and donations

Online event Feb. 27 addresses barriers for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples
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A University of Calgary professor hopes the first national event to consider health-care equity for First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in transplant medicine will spark conversations about an under-reported topic.

Dr. Caroline Tait, PhD, who is herself Métis, says the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Café Scientifique event later this month will include several Indigenous presenters who will share their leadership as well as patient experiences with organ donation and transplantation. 

Tait, who is cross-appointed to the Faculty of Social Work and Cumming School of Medicine, says issues within the organ donation and transplant system are unique for distinct First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations, though there is crossover. One of the major issues Indigenous people face, especially in northern areas, is access.  

“In a province like Alberta or Saskatchewan, remoteness means you don’t have the same level of health-care services available,” says Tait. Such remoteness results in people having to relocate or travel great distances for service — if they can even make their appointments at all. 

“Imagine being somebody who has lived all your life in the North but has to relocate away from your family and community to receive dialysis and wait for a transplant.”  

Dr. Caroline Tait

Caroline Tait

Courtesy Caroline Tait

There are also psychological barriers to donation due to a general lack of trust. “Some Indigenous people feel, because of racism within the health-care system, they may be overlooked for a transplant because of their Indigenous identity, or if they sign up to be an organ donor (they) may not receive appropriate end-of-life care so that their organs can be procured to save someone else’s life,” says Tait.

Tait, who was recently named to the CIHR Governing Council, says another potential barrier is faith-based beliefs among some Indigenous communities. “Commonly, our Elders particularly will say to us, ‘We don’t believe in organ transplant because we believe you need to be buried whole,’” she explains. “There are cultural beliefs about the body and about personhood and spirituality, what it means to go to the spirit world. So, we really need to be able to have these conversations.”   

In speaking to younger generations, Tait says beliefs are changing and points out gift-giving is also part of Indigenous culture. As such, giving someone the gift of life through organ donation could be another way to frame the issue. 

The virtual event will take place Tuesday, Feb. 27, with the Canadian focus section held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., MT. The International Focus section, which examines how other countries around the world handle organ transplant for their Indigenous populations, runs from 4 to 6 p.m., MT.  

Register for the free event

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