Irwin Igra collapsed with a brain aneurysm last April 24 and was rushed to Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. He was declared brain dead 24 hours later.
Igra and his wife, Joanne Shinwell, had signed the back of their drivers’ licences “years ago,” she said, registering their consent to donate their organs and tissue. Still, she says, “I’d been indoctrinated that Jews can’t do it.”
Shinwell knew she wanted her husband’s organs and tissues to be donated, but she also wanted to be absolutely sure it was “kosher.” She was worried that her husband wouldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery without his organs and tissues intact.
From the hospital, Shinwell had telephoned David Rosen, the cantor of the couple’s shul, Beth Radom Congregation, and he came down to speak to the family, which includes two children: Danielle, who’s now 21, and Jonathan, 18.
When she asked Rosen about organ donation, the cantor told her “most definitely, it’s better to save a life” and assured her “it was OK,” she said, and that her husband could still be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
The hospital then contacted the Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGL), an Ontario government agency that plans, promotes, co-ordinates and supports organ and tissue donation and transplantation across Ontario. Shinwell was put in touch with a Trillium representative.
“The people at Trillium were so respectful of how we were feeling,” Shinwell said. “She [the Trillium representative] answered every question, every concern. She followed up with us the next day. She was very empathic.”
Igra, a self-employed senior investment adviser who volunteered in the minor hockey community, was well known. His funeral was attended by about 1,000 people. Shinwell said her husband was a gregarious fellow with a big, booming voice. “He made it his business to speak to as many people as possible.”
Minutes before the funeral, “we got the message that Irwin’s retinas were being planted,” Shinwell said. “It was very comforting for me.” She added that her husband’s kidneys and cornea were also donated, along with various tissues for research. “Out of that terrible situation, something good happened. Someone can see, someone doesn’t have to be on dialysis.”
Shinwell said she and her husband were a normal couple in a normal family when the tragedy struck. “You don’t expect anything like this to happen,” she said, adding that “you need to have a conversation with your loved ones. As awful as it was, I knew what I wanted because we spoke about it, because those are tough decisions to make.”
With her husband’s birthday coming up, Shinwell will be speaking at Beth Radom’s organ and tissue donation educational event on May 5, along with Dov Altman, who had a double lung transplant last year, Rosen, who donated a kidney to his mother, and a rabbi who will discuss organ donation and Halachah.
Education is one of the mandates of the National Council of Jewish Women Canada’s (NCJWC) Gift of Life Organ and Tissue Donation Program. NCJWC partnered with TGL in 2011.
Rates of registration for organ donation are low, according to TGL – 24 per cent in Ontario and 15 per cent in Toronto – and people are dying waiting for transplants. At this writing, 1,534 people are waiting for organ transplants in Ontario. In 2012, 161 Canadians died while they were waiting, 97 of them in Ontario, according to a Canadian Institute of Health report. One donor can save up to eight lives and enhance the lives of up to 75 others through tissue donation.
Rabbi Reuven Bulka, chair of the TGL board, helped the NCJWC create literature that explains the Jewish view of organ and tissue donation. “The value of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), which is at the core of organ donation, is a principle shared by the entire Jewish community, regardless of denominational affiliation,” the literature states.
To the question, doesn’t Judaism require us to be buried with our bodies intact?, the literature states that “Judaism clearly draws a distinction in the case of donating organs and tissues in order to save a life. The saving of a life is the greatest mitzvah a Jew can perform. This is an overriding principle.”
Ronda Pinsky, chair of NCJWC’s gift of life program, said that most Jews she speaks to say they believe organ donation is a good thing but “they’re scared, so we combat that.”
NCJWC fights that fear by holding educational events. The group is currently using Facebook to promote the cause, and in future they will be using other social media. NCJWC also asks local rabbis to add the subject of organ donation to their sermons on yontif.
The NCJWC-Toronto be-a-donor web page, online at https://beadonor.ca/ncjwc-ts, which was put up in April 2012 and aimed for 200 registrations, now has 394. Pinsky said that it’s important to register, not just to sign the back of your driver’s licence or keep a yellow donor card in your pocket, as they may not be accessible in an emergency.
April is BeADonor Month in Ontario. For it, the NCJWC is holding an event to promote organ and tissue donation registration, along with a blood donor clinic, at the NCJWC building at 4700 Bathurst St. in Toronto on April 28.