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Donate Life: What You Need To Know About Organ Donorship

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Jan 21, 2021.

Organ Donation: Why Do It?

You know the drill: you get your drivers license renewed at the DMV and you have the box to check - organ donation or no organ donation? Maybe it seems trivial and you don't want to take the time to think about such a big decision at the DMV, so you quickly check "No", and think to yourself - "next time".

Organ donation involves removing an organ from one person and placing it in another person through a surgical procedure.

  • Roughly 20 people die each day in the U.S. due to a shortage of organs.
  • As of Jan. 2021, about 114,000 people are currently on organ transplant waiting lists.
  • A new name added to the national transplant waiting list every 10 minutes.

So now is the time to think about this important question and dispel any common misconceptions.

Can Organ Donation Really Make a Difference?

According to the U.S. Dept. of Heath and Human Services, you may save up to 8 lives through organ donation -- but first you have to sign up.

In addition, even more lives may be saved through tissue donations. If you are healthy, you can become a 'living donor' by donating a kidney, or a part of the liver, lung, intestine, blood or bone marrow.

Organs that can be transplanted are:

  • liver
  • kidney
  • pancreas
  • kidney/pancreas (can be transplanted at the same time)
  • heart
  • lung
  • heart/lung (can be transplanted at the same time)
  • intestine
  • vascularized composite allografts (VCAs), such as face and hand transplantation

You can donate bone marrow or a kidney (you only need one kidney) while still living through a match program. While it is a tragedy to lose any life, the ability to save another is a gift, and one we should strongly consider.

Don't forget, donating blood and plasma is also considered a donation of life.

What's the Process to Become an Organ Donor?

Almost anyone can donate; no one is ever too old or too young. Both infants and grandmothers have been organ donors.

  • However, if you are under the age of 18, your parent or guardian's permission is needed, even if you sign up on your driver's license permit.
  • Have a discussion about organ donation with your parent or child before you go the driver's license office -- it's not a great place to have that talk.
  • Potential organ donors will be evaluated for their match when the need arises.

A few medical conditions are absolute exclusions to organ donation, such as active cancer, or an infection in the body. A doctor will determine the viability of an organ for donation before any transplant occurs.

However, the enactment of the HIV Organ Policy Equity (HOPE) Act permits transplants between HIV+ people. In March 2016, a deceased HIV donor donated organs to two other HIV+ recipients, the first transplant in a 25-year stretch in which the organs of an HIV-infected person were used for any transplant. Now, the donor pool can be increased by 500 to 600 people per year in the United States and reduce wait times.

This link will take you to organdonor.gov and the site where you can sign up online for organ and tissue registries based on the state you live in. Of course, you can also sign up when you renew your driver's license, too.

The Difficult Time of Organ Donation

Prior to an organ donation, there has been an unfortunate event: a fatal accident or health condition such as a severe head trauma, a brain aneurysm or stroke.

Medical personal always work hard to save every life.

  • They will maintain the person on life-support if that is the wish of the patient or family.
  • After a series of tests that will be performed multiple times, a physician, usually a neurologist, will determine if the potential donor is brain dead.
  • With brain death there is no brain activity and breathing cannot occur without mechanical assistance. Brain death is not a coma and is not reversible.
  • The medical team will have done everything possible to save their patient's life.

How Are Donors Matched?

There are many common factors in matching a donated organ to a recipient: These include:

  • urgency of transplant need
  • blood type, body size, and severity of patient's condition
  • distance to deliver the organ
  • recipient's waiting time
  • recipient availability
  • how long the organ is viable outside a body.

Typically donated organs are from the deceased, but a living person can donate a whole kidney, or parts of the pancreas, lung, liver, intestine, and even bone marrow.

Misconceptions About Organ Donation

There are many misconceptions surrounding organ donation.

  • One of the top misconceptions is that the doctor will not do everything possible to save a life. This is not true. A doctor will do everything in their power to save every life.
  • Many people believe their religion may be a hindrance to organ donation, but in fact, most religions, including Catholicism, Islam, and most Protestant and Jewish faiths also embrace organ donation as consistent with their beliefs.
  • Age is not usually a factor in being a donor.
  • Celebrities, the rich and famous, and other dignitaries aren't treated preferentially as recipients of organs or tissues, even though you may frequently hear about it in the news.

Who's Had a Transplant? People You May Know

While lives of the rich and famous are not preferentially moved up the donor recipient list, many people you may know have received organ donations from random acts of kindness.

  • Comedian/actor George Lopez received a kidney transplant in 2005 donated from his wife. Singer/songwriter Natalie Cole also received a kidney in 2009.
  • Rock/folk musician David Crosby received a liver transplant in 1994.
  • Apple Inc. front man and cofounder Steve Jobs, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2011, received a liver transplant from an organ donor in 2009.
  • Selena Gomez, who has the autoimmune disease lupus erythematosus, received a kidney from friend and TV actor Francia Raisa in 2017.

Who's Given an Organ? People You May Know, Too

Many celebrities and stars have big hearts, and they have donated organs, as well as received them.

  • In her untimely death from a skiing accident, actress Natasha Richardson, former wife of actor Liam Neeson, had her kidneys, heart and liver donated to those in need.

  • Everson Walls, a former NFL player with the Dallas cowboys, donated a kidney in 2006 to a former teammate who had diabetes.

  • The organs from American actor Jon-Erik Hexum selflessly saved multiple lives after his heart, kidneys, corneas, and skin were donated to 6 different people, ranging from a 3-year old boy with third degree burns to a 66-year old man who received a sight-saving cornea.

What's Involved With a Bone Marrow Transplant?

A bone marrow transplant (BMT) is a life-saving procedure used to treat certain types of blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma.

Bone marrow is responsible for creating the important cells we have: red blood cells for carrying oxygen, white blood cells for fighting infection, and platelets for blood clotting to help stop bleeding.

  • Before the bone marrow transplant, a person's bone marrow cells are destroyed with radiation or chemotherapy.
  • After this procedure, the patient has a 'transplant' of healthy bone marrow cells, and that's where donation comes in.
  • Bone marrow cells can be harvested from living donors, like you, and may be used if they are a good match for a recipient.

More Organ Donation Resources

Becoming an organ or bone marrow donor shouldn't be taken lightly. It's a big decision and one you should discuss with your family so that they know your wishes. You can selflessly provide the gift of life which is priceless.

However, education is key to getting the answers you need.

Talk to your healthcare provider and visit these sites to learn more about becoming a donor.

Finished: Donate Life: What You Need To Know About Organ Donorship

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Sources

  • Arnold E. The HIV Organ Policy Equity Act: Offering Hope to Individuals with End Stage Renal Disease and HIV. Nephrol Nurs J. 2017 May-Jun;44(3):230-249. Accessed Jan. 21, 2021 at PMID: 29165954
  • Frequently Asked Questions. UNOS. Accessed Jan 21, 2021 at https://unos.org/transplant/frequently-asked-questions/
  • Facts and Myths. American Transplant Foundation. Accessed Jan 21, 2021 at https://www.americantransplantfoundation.org/about-transplant/facts-and-myths/
  • U.S. Government Information on Organ Donation and Transplantation. OrganDonor.com. Accessed Jan 21, 2021 at https://www.organdonor.gov/
  • Ranker.com. Celebrities Who Have Received Organ Donation. Accessed Jan 21, 2021. https://www.ranker.com/list/celebrities-who-have-received-organ-transplants/celebrity-lists
  • Harvard Health. Bone Marrow Transplant. Accessed Jan 21, 2021 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/medical-tests-and-procedures/bone-marrow-transplant-a-to-z
  • Healy M. In a first, liver and kidney from HIV-infected donor are transplanted into HIV-positive patients. LA Times. March 30, 2016. Accessed Jan 21, 2021 at https://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-transplantation-hiv-infected-organs-20160330-story.html
  • Bleday R, Lamont J, Chen W. Patient Education: Hemorrhoids (Beyond the Basics). Up to Date. Accessed Jan 21, 2021 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hemorrhoids-beyond-the-basics

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.