4 February 2024

Canberra's Gift of Life Walk is back for 2024, and it's gone global (almost)

| Genevieve Jacobs
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group of people walking

Canberra’s Gift of Life Walk has been the inspiration for walks around Australia. Photo: Supplied by GoLi.

Pre-pandemic, the Gift of Life Walk was a Canberra institution attracting around 5000 people each year walking bridge to bridge together to raise awareness around organ donation.

While COVID put a spike in all that for a few years, something rather wonderful happened: friends, supporters and family members began walking all around Australia, alone or in groups, spreading the message about the life-giving gift.

It’s been a remarkable journey for Catherine Scott, Gift of Life president.

“We decided to pivot and make the walk virtual, and that enabled us to reach out nationally and expand our contacts,” Catherine says.

“It was the legacy of all those thousands of people who still wanted to help. Organ donors are a very vulnerable group so we couldn’t gather but they all started walking, wearing our T-shirts, loading their photos onto social media, and suddenly this was nationwide.”

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Schools including Merici, St Clare’s and McKillop College walked around their ovals. On the North Coast, a close friend of Catherine’s who wanted to show solidarity found herself with 100 walkers, two of whom were organ recipients.

Fellow Gift of Life board director Nicole Quinn says all the requests for help and merchandise have turned her best friend’s sitting room into a mailout centre, but the impact has been remarkable.

“People are overwhelmingly supportive of organ donation, but many of them don’t realise they have to do something about it,” she says.

“You need to join the organ donor register, many don’t know that the driver’s licence scheme has been defunct for many years now, and most importantly you have to have the conversation with your family.”

That last bit is crucial: family members can still override someone’s decision to be an organ donor, particularly if they were unaware of it.

In 2022, 54 per cent of families said yes to donation when asked in a hospital setting, compared with 56 per cent in 2021.

Only about 2 per cent of people who die in Australian hospitals meet the criteria required to be an organ donor.

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In 2022, 1400 people died in a way where organ donation was possible. Requests to families for donation were made in 1300 cases but the request was granted by just over half the families.

At the same time, around 1800 Australians are waitlisted for a transplant and about 14,000 additional people are on dialysis – some of whom may need a kidney transplant. But only 36 per cent of us are registered donors.

The consequences of signing up to donate your organs and talking to your family about your wishes could be literally lifesaving for others.

“We think the anxiety around COVID has had a huge impact,” Catherine says. “People couldn’t necessarily sit with their loved ones holding their hands while making a decision. The conversations with clinicians took place from behind protective equipment.

“We really need to build our donor numbers up to save lives, and the best way to do that is to build understanding and awareness.”

Unlike most charity events, Gift of Life does not ask for donations.

“We want people to tell their stories and share connections,” Catherine says. “The conversations are the critical part so everybody is aware of your wishes.”

This year’s annual Gift of Life Walk will be held on 20 February starting at the Rond Terrace from 6:45 am. Official proceedings conclude at 7:15 before the bridge-to-bridge walk begins, finishing around 8:30.

The entire event is free and there will be T-shirts and hats, a DJ, a free barbecue, coffee and even dog bandanas. Canberra United has come on board as partner and the players will be present ahead of a planned Gift of Life round later this year.

You can register to attend at giftoflife.asn.au.

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