Nearly 700 lives were saved in Ontario last year, thanks to a record number people giving the gift of life.

Organ donations rose 17 per cent in 2009, two years after the provincewide Organ Donation Strategy was introduced, Health Minister Deb Matthews told a news conference yesterday.

“The Trillium Gift of Life Network is making an unbelievable difference in the lives of so many people in Ontario,” Matthews said. “This year was a record year, and I encourage everyone to consider the importance of organ donation. One decision to consent to organ donation can have such an enormous impact.”

“This is quite an accomplishment,” Frank Markel, president and CEO of the Trillium Gift of Life Network, said in an interview. “We are making progress.”

Last year, thanks to 218 deceased donors, 691 life-saving organ transplants took place, decreasing the number of deaths among people on the waiting list by nearly 24 per cent, Markel said.

As well, an unprecedented number of tissue donations provided heart valves, bone grafts and tissue from 1,299 donors last year, up 24 per cent from 2008. And 1,616 eyes for transplants restored vision, he added.

But it’s still a far cry from what’s needed. Only 17 per cent of eligible donors have registered with the province, leaving a huge gap and 1,600 Ontarians on the wait list.

“There are still people dying each year,” Markel said.

Officials credit recommendations implemented with the Organ Donation Strategy, including allowing donation after cardiac death, transferring responsibility for gaining consent from health-care professionals to trained Trillium co-ordinators, giving hospitals performance feedback, a daily review of all donation cases, simplified registration forms, improved access to OHIP’s database and public campaigns aimed at multi-faith and youth groups.