Donate Your Organs, Tissues, or Body

Making an End of Life Decision About Organ Donation

Declaration of organ donation on clipboard
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Organ and tissue donation is a gift you leave others when you die. While it's also possible to donate organs while you are still living, more often donation takes place upon death.

According to the U.S. government, about 85 people receive transplanted organs each day. That's the good news. The bad news is that 22 people in the United States die each day waiting for an organ that never becomes available.

At any given moment, approximately 118,000 Americans are awaiting the gift of an organ or body tissue from someone who has died.

Organ recipients and the families of donors and recipients find satisfaction in both the giving and receiving. Someone who receives a new organ or tissue will live a longer and healthier life, or the quality of his life will improve. The family of a donor often feels as if some of the grief of losing their loved one is lessened by the knowledge that someone else's life has been improved by the donation.

As patients consider their end-of-life wishes, they will want to include decisions about donating organs, tissue or even their entire bodies. The following questions and answers may help you make those decisions for yourself.

How does illness or age affect the ability to donate organs?

There is no maximum age for organ donation. Regardless of how sick someone is when he dies, there may still be portions of the body that can be transplanted.

It's true that some infectious diseases will cause the transplant decision-makers to reject a patient as a donor. Patients considering donation are advised to make the decision to donate, and let the professionals decide at the time of death whether a donation can be accepted.

What parts of the human body can be donated after death for transplantation?

Many parts of the human body can be transplanted to other people to improve their quality of life, or to help them survive.

You can donate eight vital organs, including your heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver, and intestines. You can donate tissues including your cornea, skin, heart valves, bone, blood vessels, and connective tissue. Transplants of the hands and face are less common, are now being performed.

Your organs and tissues may provide as many as 50 opportunities for transplantation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including the vital organs that can save eight different lives. Examples include corneal tissue transplants. Even if the vision of the person who dies isn't perfect, their corneas can improve the eyesight of recipients. Healthy donor skin can be grafted to help a burn victim. A new kidney may allow someone who is on regular dialysis the freedom to stop dialysis treatments.

What about whole body donation?

Another kind of donation, but just as much of a gift, is whole body donation. When a body is donated to medical science, it provides the opportunity for student doctors to learn about anatomy and disease. It also allows researchers to learn more about diseases, how they start and progress, and perhaps some of the ways the disease could have been prevented or cured.

Medical universities and research labs are highly appreciative of donations of human bodies. The great majority of donations are accepted, although some infectious diseases may rule out donation. Find more information about whole body donation by contacting an academic medical college near you, or one of the nationwide programs that accept bodies. Two organizations that may be helpful are the Anatomy Gifts Registry and Science Care. In most cases, after your body or tissues are used for research or training, there is a final disposition by cremation and the remains are then returned to the family.

Who will get your donated organs and tissues?

The decisions about who will get those healthy organs and tissue need to be fair and objective. In the United States, organs cannot legally be bought or sold, and decisions about who will be granted the newly harvested organs are made based on their level of need.

An organization called UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) is the overall governance for how those decisions are made. They maintain lists of patients' names, their geographic locations, and their need. As patients get sicker waiting for organs to be available, those lists are updated. At any given moment, you can check the UNOS website to see how many people in the United States are waiting for what specific organs or tissues.

What happens upon death if you are an organ donor?

If you die in a hospital or other facility, a procurement specialist will contact your next-of-kin immediately upon, or just before your death. Your family will be given information, asked questions about whether you would want to donate organs and tissues, or even your whole body. The specialist will check your driver's license and state registry to see if you have designated your willingness to be a donor.

Your family will have a very short time, sometimes only minutes after your death, to decide whether they want that donation made. That's why it's critical you make your wishes known to your family while you are still healthy enough to have the conversation.

You will still be able to have an open casket funeral if you are an organ, eye, or tissue donor. Your body will be treated with respect and dignity when the tissues are harvested.

How much does it cost to donate your body or organs?

There is no cost to the donor or the donor's family. The family is still obligated to cover funeral costs. Transplantation costs are taken on by the patients who need the organs or tissues.

Are there religious restrictions for organ donations?

Religious beliefs are rarely a reason to reject the idea of donating one's organs, tissue, or body. OrganDonor.gov lists of religions and their beliefs about donation and transplantation. Most denominations and traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam approve of organ donation and often encourage it. Notable exceptions are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and the Shinto faith.

Will doctors work as hard to save your life if they know you are an organ donor?

This has been a fear, probably based on bad movies or vivid imaginations, but it's not reality. It's actually one of several myths addressed on the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) website.

Doctors and medical personnel have a first duty to make sure they keep you alive as long as they are able, and as long as your family wants you kept alive. Any other decisions about donations take place once there is no hope you can be kept alive any longer.

How do you become an organ or whole body donor?

You can register as an organ donor if you are age 18 or over. There are two ways to sign up, either online or in-person at your local motor vehicle department. Then you must make your wishes known to your family. While you explain your wishes to your family, ask them to become organ or body donors, too. Also, you should develop advanced directive documents. While you explain your wishes to your family, ask them to become organ or body donors, too.

Most states allow you to choose which organs or tissues you are willing to donate or to say you are willing to donate anything usable. You can change your donor status at any time, but you don't have to keep renewing it. Being on the state registry is legal consent.

Sources:

Facts About Organ Donation. United Network for Organ Sharing. https://www.unos.org/donation/facts/.

Organ Donation FAQs. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.organdonor.gov/about/facts-terms/donation-faqs.html.

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