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The Facts about Organ Donation

By: 
Renee Despres

Advances in organ transplantation have given hope to thousands of people with end-stage organ failure. Yet every day in the United States, 18 people die while waiting for an organ donation. As of April 14, 2012, nearly 114,000 people in the United States were waiting for a donor organ. In 2011, only 28,535 organ transplants – from both dead and living donors – were performed.

The need for organ donation has never been greater, and it is expected to increase sharply over the coming decade. The gap between the need for organs and available organs is widening for several reasons. More people are experiencing organ failure, partly because populations are aging. The number of people with kidney failure has increased dramatically and continues to rise. On the positive side, advances in technology and medical knowledge mean that more people can benefit from organ transplantation. Traditionally, most organs have been recovered from people who died due to brain hemorrhage or motor vehicle crashes. Treatment for both of these conditions has improved dramatically – leading to fewer donors, especially in younger age groups. 

Misconceptions about Organ Donation

There's another unnecessary reason for the gap between the need for organs and availability: Many people have serious misconceptions about organ donation and what it means for the donor and the donor's family. Here are some of the common myths about organ donation that prevent people from registering as an organ donor -- and the truths that contradict them.

Myth 1: If I sign up to donate organs or tissues, hospital personnel and doctors won’t do everything they can to save my life.

Truth: If you are admitted to a hospital in critical condition, the medical team assigned to your care focuses on saving one life: yours. Organ recovery and transplantation is performed by an entirely different medical team.

Most commonly, potential organ donors are admitted to the hospital after illness or an accident. Often, they have experienced a brain aneurysm, stroke, or severe head trauma. Every effort will be made to save your life.

Myth 2: My religion forbids organ donation.

Truth: Most major religions endorse organ donation as the highest gesture of humanitarianism. Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, and Judaic leaders have issued supportive statements. For instance, Catholics view organ donation as an act of charity and love – two of the highest moral principles in the religion. Almost all religions consider organ donation an individual choice.

Although many people assume that Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose organ donation because they do not believe blood transfusions are acceptable. However, physicians organ donation if all blood is removed from organs first. One exception to the pattern is Shinto, a Japanese religion.

If you are unsure about your faith's position on organ or tissue donation, talk to your priest or pastor.

Myth 3: I have a medical condition, so I cannot donate an organ.

Truth: Very few medical conditions absolutely prevent you from donating one or more organs. Even if some organs are not suitable for transplant, other organs may be fine. Although many people believe that they can only donate their heart, kidneys, and liver, nothing is farther from the truth. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), “needed organs include the heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver and intestines. Tissue that can be donated include the eyes, skin, bone, heart valves and tendons.”

Criteria for tissue donation are stricter, because tissue donation is generally a life-enhancing, not life-saving, procedure. But people with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers, and even hepatitis have been able to donate organs. The ability to donate will be determined at the time of death.

Myth 4: My family will have to pay for the cost of organ donation.

Truth: Family members are never held responsible for any costs related to donation. Often, families may mistake costs of efforts to save the person’s life with costs related to organ and tissue donation.

Myth 5: I’ve joined a donor registry and checked the box on my driver’s license indicating that I’d like to be an organ donor. I don’t need to do anything else.

Truth: Joining a donor registry is an important way to record your intent. In the United Kingdome, the National Health Services keeps a universal organ donor registry in the United Kingdom. On September 1, 2006, the United Kingdom adopted the Human Tissues Act, which calls for physicians to respect the wishes of the potential donor.

The United States does not have a national donor registry, but the US Department of Health and Human Services offers a portal to the 58 different state-based organization in the country. Most states offer donor registry programs, some of which are associated with drivers’ licensing processes. But almost all programs will defer to the wishes of family and friends, if they object to donation. That’s why it’s important to speak with your family, friends, and doctors about your decision, so that they are aware of your wishes.

Myth 6: I’m too old to donate organs and tissues.

Truth: In the United States, the oldest documented organ donor was 96 years old. In the United Kingdom, a woman who died at 104 years of age donated two corneas. Many organs have been transplanted from donors in their 70s and 80s.

Myth 7: I’m too young to donate organs and tissues.

Children and youth can choose to donate organs with a parents’ approval. Although many registries only allow adults to sign up, parents or guardians can authorize this decision for their children who would like to register.

Myth 8: People who are wealthy, famous, or politically connected receive donated organs first.  

Truth: Wealth, celebrity status, and political influence may help get better service at a restaurant – but they won’t move you to the top of the organ transplant waiting list. Organ transplantation priotization is a complex process. First, the recipient must be approved by a transplant center. When an organ becomes available, approved candidates are considered for transplantation based on blood and tissue type, medical urgency, body size, distance between the donor and transplant hospital and time spent waiting for a transplant.

Myth 9: If I donate my organs, it will delay funeral arrangements and I won’t be able to have an open-casket viewing.

Truth: Donating an organ will in no way delay funeral arrangements or change any funeral plans. Organ donation must happen quickly – well before any funeral arrangements will even begin.

Open casket viewing is possible after any type of donation. The body is fully clothed, so any incisions are not seen. If skin is donated, it is taken in a very thin layer from the back of the body; if bone is donated, a rod is inserted to provide the same structural appearance.

Myth 10: I can’t donate organs or tissues to someone who is not related to me or who is not a member of my racial or ethnic group.

Truth: You can donate to someone who is not a relative and even to someone from another racial or ethnic group. However, transplants are more frequently successful when organs are matched between members of the same ethnic background.

Unfortunately, there’s a disparity between the racial and ethnic backgrounds of people who donate organs and tissues – and those who receive them. In 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 67 percent of all deceased donors were non-Hispanic whites, 16% were Black, 13% were Hispanic and 2.3% Asian. At the end of 2011, the national waiting list was made up of 45% non-Hispanic whites, 29% Blacks, 18% Hispanics, and 7% Asians. Because fewer people from different ethnic groups donate organs, people within those ethnic groups may experience longer wait times.

How to Become an Organ Donor

Becoming an organ donor is simple: Register your intent by signing up in your state’s registry as an organ and tissue donor. In the United States, simply fill out the form (you'll need a driver's license number) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services portal to organ donor registries at http://organdonor.gov/becomingdonor/stateregistries.html. In the U.K., you can sign up for the national organ donor registry at http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/ukt/.

After you’ve signed up, spread the word among people close to you, so your decision is known and can be acted on should the need arise:  

  • Talk to your friends and family.
  • Tell your physician and faith leader.
  • Mark the decision on your driver’s license
  • Note your decision in your end-of-life planning documents, such as your will, advance directives, and living will.

Ultimately, only you know whether organ and tissue donation is right for you. Now that you are armed with the true facts about organ donation, you can make an informed decision.

Additional Information

For more information about organ and tissue donation and transplantation or becoming an organ donor, visit the following organizations' websites:

Donate Life America: www.donatelife.net

The Gift of a Lifetime: www.organtransplants.org

National Marrow Donor Program: www.marrow.org

American Red Cross (blood and tissue donation): www.redcross.org

The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (Operated by UNOS under contract with HRSA): http://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site for Organ Donation: www.organdonor.gov

U.K. National Health Services Organ Donor Program: http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/ukt