Organ donation has existed since 1954, when the first kidney ever was transplanted into a living recipient. Since then, the United States has developed one of the best organ donation and transplantation systems in the world. But how exactly does the organ donation process work and why is it so important?
Read below to learn about the organ donation process, what organs can and can’t be transplanted, the difference between a living organ donation and after death donation, and why being an organ donor may be right for you.
Organ donation is the process of donating an organ to someone in need. Human beings are born with vital organs that help keep our bodies alive and working efficiently. Examples of vital organs include the heart, brain, kidney, liver, pancreas, and so on. Every organ has a job to do to keep us alive and healthy. However, organ failure can result in poor health and sometimes, death.
Organ failure may be caused by many reasons including lifestyle factors (such as alcohol abuse) or due to an illness or health condition (cancer, diabetes, virus, etc.). In many health scenarios, organ transplantation is necessary for the survival of the patient. Without a willing organ donor, a sick person may not survive. There are two types of organ donation:
A living donation is when you donate a non-vital, or partial organ to a person in need. For example, a kidney. Each human being has two kidneys, though if we are healthy throughout our lives, we need only one to survive. A person can choose to donate one of their kidneys while continuing to live a healthy life.
An after-death organ donation takes place after you are deceased. If you decide before your death to be an organ donor, surgeons can surgically remove your working organs and transplant them into another person.
Donating organs can save lives. There are many tragic events that may occur in one’s life that may require an organ or tissue transplantation. When we die, we no longer have need for our surviving organs and tissues. While it’s morbid to think about our own demise, it’s hopeful to think that our death can mean new life for a suffering person. Some people become organ donors because they want to help others, even after their death. Becoming a registered organ donor is one of the most honorable things we can do to help our fellow human beings.
Being an organ donor may help your surviving friends and family cope with your loss. They may find comfort knowing that your heart, liver, or pancreas is still living within someone else. Your surviving loved ones may even want to connect with the recipient of your organs to feel closer to you.
Becoming an organ donor may be your last chance for leaving a legacy and doing good in this world. When you donate your organs, you may be saving one person or many people’s lives. No matter what wrongdoings you may have done in your past, you can rest easy knowing you made a difference in the end. Being an organ donor gives your surviving loved ones and the organ recipients a reason to celebrate and honor you after you pass.
In the United States alone there are over 100,000 people on the organ transplant waitlist. That list only grows everyday as every nine minutes, someone needs a new organ. In 2020, there were about 39,000 organ transplantation surgeries performed. However, there are still many people waiting for organ transplantation.
Unfortunately, many of them will wait for years before an organ becomes available to them. Many people will die before it’s their turn to receive a new organ. Sometimes, a suitable organ donor is never found for a patient as organ donations are based on supply, not demand. It’s said that about 17 people die every day due to organ failure.
One of the main reasons the supply for organ donations remains low is because only 3 out of every 1,000 organ donors who die, die in a way that makes their organs suitable. However, if your organs are suitable, you may be able to save or improve the lives of up to 75 people. Organ donations are matched to people according to blood type, meaning the more organ donations, the more possibilities there are for sick people in need.
Minority groups including African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Pacific Islanders are more likely than other races to have certain chronic conditions that may affect their organs. Minorities are also more likely to have certain blood types, making finding a match more difficult with short supply. If you belong to one of these minority groups, it is especially important for you to consider being an organ donor. Your organs may save another minority in need.
Most healthy people should have no problem donating tissue or organs. Living organ donations make up four out of every organ donations yearly (or 6,000 a year). Most living organ donations are donated by family members or friends, but you can also choose to donate to people you don’t know. The process behind becoming a living donor usually starts with making an appointment at an organ transplant center.
A doctor will check you over and make sure you are a suitable organ donor. Doctors want to make sure you are healthy enough to donate organs as it could carry long term side effects. Some things that may exclude you from being a living donor include having diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and heart disease either in the present or past. If you’re cleared, then you can donate an organ or tissue to your friend or family member or be matched with a stranger in need.
Signing up to be an after-death organ donor is simple. You have the choice to become an organ donor when registering for a driver's license at your local DMV. You will be given a form to fill out with a check mark box asking you if you would like to be an organ donor. Simply check the “Yes” box and you will be registered in the system as an organ donor.
You can also sign up online through a donor registration form from a government official website.
You will receive an organ donation card after you register. Be sure to keep your organ donation card with you wherever you go. You should also alert your family members and friends of your after-death organ donor status. Doing so will help them carry out your wishes after you’ve passed. It may also be a good idea to let your doctor, lawyer, or priest know about your organ donation status.
Anyone, 18 years or older (though some states do allow children to provide a deceased donation) can be an organ donor after death. There are no organ donation rules. Age, race, or gender plays no role in whether a donated organ is useful or not. Organs from anyone at any age can possibly save the life of another person in need.
Registering for the donation waitlist is a little more difficult than registering to be an organ donor. If you need an organ transplant, you will first have to get a doctor’s referral. Your doctor will refer you to a transplant center or program. The doctors at the transplant center will then determine if you are a candidate for organ transplantation.
Once you’ve gotten a referral, you will need to make an appointment at the transplant center to be evaluated by a doctor. Doctors will decide whether you qualify for an organ transplant based on your needs, current health situation, and how quickly your organs are failing. You should expect to have your blood drawn for various testing including the function of your organs, drugs, and overall state of health.
You may also receive X-rays or a CT scan. Your doctor will use these tests to determine if the transplantation process should continue. If your doctor finds that your organs are functioning too well, you may be disqualified from getting on the transplant list.
If you’ve been approved to continue the organ transplantation process, you will need to undergo further testing. Some of these tests will be to determine if you are healthy enough to undergo transplant surgery. Not every person can tolerate anesthesia or be able to recover post-surgery. You will also be tested for cancer and may be required to undergo a mammogram or colonoscopy to check for the presence of certain deadly cancers. In most cases, having cancer will exclude you from being an organ transplant recipient.
After undergoing medical testing, you will be asked to be evaluated by both psychologists and social workers. Having a history of severe mental illness may disqualify you from being a transplant candidate. Doctors must be able to evaluate whether or not you are mentally capable of understanding post-surgical instructions. Transplant surgery requires a strict post-op care routine.
You will need to be vigilant about taking certain medications post-op to prevent your body from rejecting the new organ. You will also need to follow post-op instructions such as how to care for your wound. If you are mentally incapable of following these instructions, then you will not be put on the transplant list. People with an intellectual disability may be considered as a candidate if they have a strong support system to care for them.
If you are seeking an organ transplant due to organ failure caused by drug or alcohol abuse (such as liver cirrhosis) you may be disqualified from being a transplant candidate. Because organ donations are scarce, surgeons will not want to transplant an organ into someone who will continue to abuse their bodies with drugs and alcohol.
However, you may still be a candidate for transplant surgery if you are free of substance addiction. Different transplant centers have different requirements for the length of time you must be free of substance use to qualify for a transplant. You will also be expected to undergo regular drug testing while waiting for an organ to be sure you stay drug and alcohol free. If you cannot control your addictions, then you will not qualify for an organ transplant.
Organ transplant surgery is not free. You or your insurance will be expected to pay for your organ transplant surgery as well as the post-surgical appointments and medications. Organ transplant surgery is an invasive surgery with many risks. You may need to return to the hospital for further care if you have post-surgery complications. You will also need to take medications post-surgery to keep your body from rejecting your new organ.
These medications can be expensive and add up quickly. Social workers and financial specialists will speak with you to determine what your options are. Not having enough money does not automatically disqualify you from being a transplant candidate. You may have financial aid options such as Medicare, Medicaid, or other financial aid available to you.
Your eligibility for an organ transplant will also be determined by how well you care for and manage your health currently. For example, if you are suffering from kidney disease but fail to follow your doctor’s instructions about how to best care for yourself, you may be disqualified.
Doctor’s want to know that you are capable of and care enough about your health to take care of yourself post organ transplant. If not, they will find a candidate who is more understanding of the second chance at life they have been given.
Once you have undergone all required testing and evaluations, a team of doctors and specialists at the transplant center will make a decision. If you qualify, you will be added to the transplant list and notified when they have found a match for you. The waiting period for an organ varies but often takes years due to short supply. During this time, you will be expected to attend check-up appointments to monitor your health and organ condition.
If you do not make it on the list, you may be able to appeal the decision. You can also try applying to different transplant centers or programs that have different requirements.
Many human organs can be donated and transplanted into someone else as a lifesaving resort. The types of organs that can be donated depend on whether you are acting as a living donor or deceased donor.
If you are a living donor, you can donate the following:
If you are a deceased donor, you can donate the following:
Organ transplantation surgery has greatly improved since the first organ transplant back in 1954. Many organ transplant surgeries have a high success rate and add years to the recipient's life. How successful the transplant surgery is depends on which organ is being transplanted and whether the organ came from a living or deceased donor (generally living donations have a better outcome).
If you’ve decided you would like to donate one or a partial organ, you must first have a compatible blood type with the donor recipient. If you are donating a kidney, you must also have the right tissue type. These factors are determined through lab testing.
Living organ donors must go through an evaluation process to determine whether they are eligible to be a living donor. These evaluation factors include physical health and mental health status. The transplant team must also be sure the living donor is making an informed decision and not under any duress, pressure, or financial motivations.
The first step to becoming a living donor is to make an appointment with your primary physician, family, and friends about your decision. Though the decision to donate is a personal one, others around you might have some good insight.
Make sure you are fully aware of the possible risks and complications involved with living donation. You should never feel pressured or guilted into making such a life changing decision. Also, be aware that it is illegal in the United States to donate organs in exchange for money.
Once you’ve made your decision to donate, contact a transplant center closest to you (or one of your choice). They will send you a questionnaire to ensure you don’t have any pre-existing health conditions that would exclude you from being a donor.
If you pre-qualify, you will then be asked to take some blood tests to determine your blood type and to test for possible transmissible diseases. The medical team should also inform you at this time of the possible risks and complications associated with being a living donor. Make sure to ask plenty of questions so that you are fully educated on what it means to be a living donor.
Should you still want to be a living donor, you will then meet with the transplant team for them to do evaluations and tests. Some of the evaluations will include:
Once you have been made fully aware of the possible risks and complications related to being a donor and have been approved, take your time coming to a final decision. Think about how being a donor will affect your life post-surgery. Any invasive surgery is traumatic on the body.
While it’s possible to live without certain organs, it doesn’t mean there won’t be setbacks. Consider how your life might change post-donation and if you are okay with it. At any time during the organ donation process, you are free to change your mind. The reasons for your decision will always be kept confidential by the transplant team.
When a person registers to be an organ donor after death, they are put in a system that lets medical professionals know they wish to be an organ donor. When you die, a doctor will verify that you agreed to be an organ donor. Once the verification process is complete, a doctor will determine if your organs are suitable to be donated.
Some of these factors may include your state of health when you passed or whether your organs received damage upon death. If a doctor deems you eligible to be an organ donor, then they will try to match you with a recipient on the organ transplantation list.
Doctors will choose an organ recipient based on blood type, body size, medical urgency, or length of time on the organ transplantation waiting list. Not everyone will be a perfect match for your organs. Doctors will try to match your organs with a recipient in their service area. If they cannot find a match in the service area, then they may try to match your organs with recipients nationally.
When a match is found, the recipient's doctor will choose whether to accept the organ or not. If they deem it a suitable match, then they will go forward with the organ transplant surgery. Surgeons will recover the organs from your body then transplant them into the recipient’s body.
Though many Americans support organ donation (about 95%), only 60% of Americans are registered organ donors. There are many misconceptions and myths about being an organ donor that may deter these people from registering. Below are some of the most common concerns people have for not registering as an organ donor.
The most common misconception about being an organ donor is that doctors won’t try as hard to save your life should you fall ill or have an accident. The belief is that because organs are in such high demand, doctors won’t try as hard to save your life if they know you are a donor. They may pronounce you dead prematurely, simply because they would rather harvest your organs for another patient in need.
However, this is false. A doctor or surgeons’ job is to save lives at all costs. They will not withhold medical care from you because they believe you are not worth saving. Doctors have a responsibility to care for their patients to the best of their abilities. Becoming an organ donor does not mean you are less likely to receive proper medical care.
Organ transplantation and removal surgery is performed by trained medical professionals. There is great care taken to preserve the figure of the deceased during organ removal surgery. Families can still have a traditional funeral service with an open casket if they wish.
Any one of any age may be eligible to donate their kidneys. Age does not necessarily exclude you from being a donor because your organs are older. Though you are older, you may still have organs that are suitable enough for donation.
You should also not assume that having an illness immediately disqualifies you from being an organ donor. While certain viruses or illnesses (such as HIV or Cancer) may disqualify you from being a donor, not all illnesses do. Your doctors will decide if your organs are suitable for transplantation at the time of your death.
Most states only allow adults 18 and over to register as an organ donor, though some states allow minors ages 15-17 to register as an organ donor. While children are unable to be on the organ donor registry in most states, they can still donate their organs post-death.
Doctors will leave it up to the children’s parents to decide if they would like their child’s organs to be donated post-death. It’s important to remember that children are also in need of organ transplants. Because organs must be the correct size for each individual, child organ donations are needed as well.
Organ donation is only performed under explicit consent from the donor. After death donors must willingly register as an organ donor, no one can choose for them. If at any time you change your mind about being an organ donor, you can have your name removed from the registry. After death organ donation is only possible once a registered organ donor is pronounced dead. Doctors will never remove organs from living donors unless with consent.
Living donors must be made fully aware of the possible risks and side effects of the procedure. It is illegal for any doctor or person to pressure someone into donating their organs against their will. There is nothing ethically wrong with donating your organs if you are a willing and informed donor.
Though it’s commonly believed that organ donation goes against many mainstream religions, this is false. Most religions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Roman Catholicism, do not oppose organ donation. If you are unsure about whether your religion allows organ donation, ask a church leader or religious leader.
Register to be an organ donor:
Government organ donation and transplant education and resources:
Memorial jewelry can help surviving loved one’s cope with their loss. For surviving family of organ donors, giving a memorial jewelry gift to the organ donor recipient can be a way for the recipient to feel connected to their savior.
Your loved ones can have memorial jewelry made, such as fingerprint rings or a cremation necklace made to honor your life and your legacy. Fingerprint rings laser engrave the deceased’s thumbprint onto a metal ring band. It allows surviving loved ones to keep a part of the deceased with them even after death.
A cremation necklace is a pendant necklace that holds a small portion of the deceased’s ashes. Like with the fingerprint ring, cremation necklaces let surviving friends and family hold onto physical mementos of their deceased loved one.
Picture cremation jewelry allows you to carry a small portion of your loved one’s ashes in a jewelry pendant engraved with your loved one’s picture. It’s a beautiful way to honor the memory of your heroic deceased loved one. You can customize your picture engraved cremation jewelry however you like including adding a birthstone gem.
The process to receive an organ is long. You must first be referred by a doctor to get an appointment at an organ transplant center. Once you have an appointment, you will undergo numerous tests and evaluations to determine if you are a suitable candidate for organ transplant.
These tests and evaluations can take weeks to months depending on the severity of your organ failure. Once you are deemed suitable as a candidate, you will be placed on the organ transplant waitlist. You can expect to wait up to several years before you receive a donor match.
The organ donation and distribution process is overseen by a government agency called The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). They provide oversight over organ recovery and transplantation through the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), which was established by Congress in 1984 under the National Organ Transplant Act.
The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) is a non-profit under contract with the federal government. They are currently responsible for managing the US organ transplant system. They maintain the donation waitlist and match donors to recipients 24 hours a day.
There are no costs involved for being an organ donor. Whether you are a living or deceased donor, you will not pay for surgeries involved with recovering your organs. If you are a deceased donor, your family will however, still be responsible for your funeral costs.
Anyone can be an organ donor if they are deemed eligible and willing. Adults 18 and over can register to be an organ donor with their state (though some states allow 15–17-year-olds to register as well). Children cannot register to be an organ donor but in the event of a child’s untimely death, the parents can decide to donate their child’s organs then.
Anyone of any age, race, gender, or health status may be an organ donor. However, certain health conditions such as cancer or HIV may exclude you from donating your organs.
Currently, there are over 106,000 people on the organ donor transplant list. In general, most people should expect to wait 3-5 years before they are matched with a donor. The wait time may vary depending on the severity of your health concerns or your geographical location. The list is very dependent on supply from donors, meaning there is no way to speed up the process.
In the case of a cardiac death, organs can be harvested from a patient after 60 minutes with no heartbeat. In other situations, patients must be declared brain dead before the organ donation process can begin. Once the organs are removed from the donor's body, they have a short time span before they are unusable. The time spans range from 4-72 hours depending on which organ it is.
When a patient has been officially declared dead and organ donation is authorized, surgeons will remove your organs. Once the organs are removed, they will be placed on artificial life support using machines to keep oxygen going to the organs.
Doctors will determine the condition of each organ. If they are suitable, organs will be carefully placed in a cooler with ice and electrolytes to be transported to the hospital where the transplant recipient is waiting. Organs may travel by ambulance, helicopter, or even commercial airline.
Becoming an organ donor is a personal decision that is up to you, and only you, to make. Donating your organs after death is honorable and may save many lives. Being a living donor is altruistic and equally as life-changing for someone else.
Making the decision to help fellow human beings is heroic but at the same time, we must make decisions based on what is right for us. Use this guide to help you determine whether being an organ donor is right for you.
January 6, 2023 by Frances Kay