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Organ Donation

Image*: Circle of Life Bike Tour 2009  

The “waiting list” for organs is astonishing. Consider that:

  • In the United States as of November 2017, more than 116,590 are waiting for an organ, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).
  • UNOS reports that on average 20 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.
  • 33,611 Transplants were performed in 2016, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
  • Among those waiting are pediatric cases: 1,900 babies, children and teens.

While these numbers vary from day to day, the need for organs and tissue continues to be enormous. (For additional information see https://www.unos.org/.)

What types of organs can be donated?

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and UNOS, a deceased person's kidneys, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, intestines, corneas, skin, tendons, bone, and heart valves can be donated.

Combined organ transplants such as kidney/pancreas and heart/lung transplants can also be performed.

living individual can donate a kidney, part of the pancreas, part of a lung, part of the liver, and even a part of the intestine.

Who can donate organs?

Several key factors affect whether or not a person can donate organs. It’s important to recognize the two categories of organ donation: (1) deceased donation occurs at the time of a donor’s death; (2) living donation is the process of donating an organ while alive as a directed or non-directed donor. For living donation, the American Transplant Foundation states that, “A healthy person can become a living donor by donating a kidney or a part of the liver, lung, intestine, blood or bone marrow. “

Other items considered are listed below.

Medical History. Medical condition at the time of death determines what organ or tissues can be donated. Certain conditions, such as HIV, cancer that was spreading, or severe infection preclude organ donation when someone has died.

Living donors are usually between 18 and 60 years of age. They are evaluated by lab tests, physical exam, and a psychosocial exam to ensure the candidate is healthy and making an informed decision. Generally, those who have cancer, HIV, diabetes, kidney disease or heart disease cannot be donors. The transplant team will determine who is a good candidate once the individual’s medical history is complete and evaluated. For more about living donation, visit the American Transplant Foundation website.

Age of Consent. Generally, a person must be 18 years of age or older to be registered as a donor. Anyone under the age of 18 and who wishes to be considered a live donor must have the consent of a parent or guardian. However, if a minor dies the parents can give the gift of life to another family.

Religious beliefs. For those who question if certain religions are in favor of organ donations, the answer is usually yes. In general, mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism allow and encourage organ donations. (1)

Many mainstream religions also encourage members to express their wishes to family members, register their intent on state-issued I.D. cards, or carry their Donor Registration Cards in their purse or wallet.

Why should I donate an organ?

The American Transplant Foundation provides several compelling reasons to consider becoming an organ or tissue donor. (2)

  • Another name is added to the transplant waiting list every 10 minutes.
  • One deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation, and enhance more than 100 lives through tissue donation.
  • One in four living donors is not biologically related to the recipient.

In a 2012 TEDx Talk titled “Giving the Gift of Life through Organ Donation,” Dr. Chris Barry, renowned transplant surgeon and researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center, made a penetrating statement. He said, “If you’re not an organ donor when you die, you are taking a lot of people with you.”

What is the “waiting list” for organ transplants?

Most people might assume that a waiting list is on a “first come, first serve” basis like you would experience in a deli. But that’s not the case when it comes to organ transplants. In 1984 UNOS developed an online database called UNet, which collects, stores and analyzes data that pertains to the patient waiting list. (For additional information see https://www.unos.org/.)

A complex analysis integrates the waiting list, donor and matching recipient. The “Organ Type and Waiting Time” page at UNOS states: “Most candidates, except those with living donors, wait for an organ due to the shortage of donor organs. Because each candidate's situation is unique, waiting times can vary, depending on a number of factors, such as those described below. To better understand what influences waiting time, talk with your transplant team.” (3)

Factors taken into consideration for organ allocation include, but are not limited to:

  • blood type
  • tissue type
  • medical urgency
  • waiting time
  • expected benefit
  • geography, and
  • other medical criteria pertinent to a particular transplant

The UNOS Organ Center has been staffed 24/7 since it began in July 1982. For information on how organs are matched, visit the “Transplantation” page on the UNOS website. 

How do I register to become an organ donor?

It’s easy to become a donor. Simply go to organdonor.gov, and then access your state to register. Or, you can contact an Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) nearest you.

The Path of Donation

There are two ways for a person to be able to donate their organs.

1.) When an individual is declared "brain-dead" with no hope for survival

After all possible life-saving measures have been taken to try to save a patient's life and there is no hope for survival, a person will be declared brain dead by a certifying physician in a hospital setting. If the patient is registered as a donor, specially trained staff discuss the organ donation process with the surviving family. The transplant team is summoned and the deceased is taken quickly into surgery to harvest the organs to ensure they remain viable.

2.) As a "Living Donor" when someone can donate a specific organ, such as a kidney while they are still alive

In the case of a living donor, a healthy individual may donate certain organs to a person who is on the wait list. In fact, it's possible that the donor can even specify who the organs should go to, be it a family member or friend. 

In either event, it's important that families speak to one another to ensure everyone understands the wishes of one another. A donor’s family receives extraordinary compassionate care and support throughout the process. This includes sensitivity to the family’s need to plan for a funeral or memorial.

Cremation, memorial services and celebrations

The opportunity for families and loved ones to say “good-bye” to a person who has died is very important to most families. Understanding the wishes of the decedent at the time of death – and his or her choice to be an organ or whole-body donor – may impact the planning of a memorial service or funeral. When possible it’s a wise idea to plan ahead.

Whole body donation

For example, if arrangements were pre-arranged for a body to be donated to science, there is generally little to no cost to the family. In this scenario, the body is donated to an organ donor program (usually a medical school) for educational purposes. Upon death, representatives from the medical school dispatch professionals to pick up the decedent and transport the body back to the medical school.

Since the body is being used for educational and research purposes, it’s possible that the school or organization may have the body for up to 18 months. Therefore, a funeral or memorial service would be delayed. This poses as a potential source of distress for family members.

The advantages are that the donation will benefit medical science for years to come, which may have been important for the decedent. Also the medical school will perform the cremation at no cost, and will return the ashes to the family.

Science Care, a private company established in 2000, accepts whole body donation. Their website contains essential information for those considering this. Regarding memorial services, they state: “Whole body donation would prohibit a traditional open casket funeral. However, many families choose to have a memorial service prior to or after receiving the cremated remains.” (For more information see http://www.sciencecare.com/.)

Keep in mind that the amount of ashes returned is significantly less than with a whole body cremation. Many urns for ashes are available in small and large sizes.

Additionally, our blog, “Consider Body Donation for Science Research,” provides a snapshot of information on whole body donation.

Organ donation

If, on the other hand, the decedent’s choice was to donate organs and tissue at the time of death, there is more opportunity to hold a memorial or funeral in the traditional sense. Once a person is declared brain-dead, the transplant team will take the decedent immediately into surgery to harvest the organs. The body is then released to the family. Organ donation does not interfere with plans for a full casket viewing, or services that would display an urn for human ashes, or that involve keepsake urns and scattering urns.

To assist you in selecting a cremation urn, consider four questions and information pertaining to an urn’s use, materials, design and cost.

Stories of Hope and the Gift of Life

Tom Dingwall

In January 2003, Tom Dingwall received news that he was in kidney failure and needed a kidney transplant. “When that happens, your initial thought is, it’s a death sentence. But thanks to the people who are willing to donate, it isn’t.”

Tom explains that he and his wife, Kim, were provided a packet of information. In the packet were fliers that announced they were looking for a kidney donor. These were left on tables and pinned to bulletin boards where they worked and at their church and other places that would increase the chances to find a donor.

Unbeknownst to them, a co-worker of Kim’s picked up the flier, called the #1-800 and made a trip to the Mayo Clinic to see if he was a match – and he was.

Tom was given the gift of life on July 29, 2004. His donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, was released from the hospital after three days and made a complete recovery. When asked why he made the decision to donate, he said, “Basically it came down to the fact that I had two healthy kidneys, and Tom didn’t have any.”

Mother Hears Dead Son’s Heartbeat

A story, recently aired on KIRO-7 News titled "Mother hears dead son's heartbeat after organ donation," provides a glimpse into the lives of two families. One mother faced the devastation of losing her 7-month old son, Lukas Clark. A child named Jordan Drake received Lukas Clark’s heart when she was 18-months. She is a flourishing child today.

If you’re considering a donation of organs or whole body, start by talking with your family about this important choice.

*Image available at  http://bit.ly/1QR36jK

(1) Read more at http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2001/05/Organ-Donation-Where-Your-Religion-Stands.aspx#jXsbFPPOlH8gs3EY.99/.

(2) Read more at http://www.americantransplantfoundation.org/about-transplant/facts-and-myths/.

(3) Read more at http://www.transplantliving.org/before-the-transplant/about-organ-allocation/waiting-for-an-organ/.

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