Many people are alive today and leading productive lives because medical science has become so skilled in transplanting some essential organs. Nonetheless, there is a shortage of donors, and many patients die while still on the waiting list. Although most people support the idea of donation, misinformation and a lack of communication prevent donations from occurring. Organ donation is one of the most rigorously monitored medical procedures. Strict rules and regulations are put in place to make sure that people have a fair chance at receiving vital organs.
More than 120,000 Americans are waiting for an organ transplant. Kidney and liver are the two most sought after organs according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). Currently, donated organs are distributed within local areas, then in several regions, then nationally.
It is illegal for people to buy or sell organs in the United States. Organs are matched to transplant candidates by a complex point system devised by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) that considers blood type, time spent on a waiting list, medical urgency, and other factors. Transplant candidates are assigned a status starting with the most ill, then are reorganized based on the other classifications.
Candidates for organ transplant are carefully screened by their local doctors and often a transplant team before their names are submitted for transplant surgery.
Timing is important. The sooner a person gets the new organ, the better their chances are at having a successful transplant. Many health plans ask organ transplant candidates if they are well enough to wait for their organ at a motel or hotel near a registered United States transplant center. Because this often involves temporary relocation, some health plans also pay the travel expenses of a family member.
Since so many factors must be coordinated, many health plans assign a case worker to organ transplant candidates. Treatment often includes psychological and spiritual counseling for the entire family prior to the transplant, and then follow-up reminders about diet, exercise, lifestyle, and medications after the surgery. Any organ transplant requires life-long doses of anti-rejection medications that have a number of side effects.
If you or someone you know needs a transplant, it is very important to know all aspects of what is involved. Take some time to research the ins and outs of organ transplantation.
A typical transplant team includes the surgeon, a specialty doctor, an infectious disease doctor, a social worker, pastoral care staff, a psychologist, a nurse transplant coordinator, and the health plan's case manager. When a health plan evaluates a candidate for transplant, they usually consider the person's age and health, the support of family members, substance abuse, and other factors.
Often, families deny organ donation at the time of death because they think it is against their religion, or that their loved one will go to his grave "unwhole."
In reality, most organized religions support organ donation. They typically consider it a generous act that is the person's or the family's choice. Moreover, donated organs are removed surgically in a routine operation. Donation does not disfigure a loved one nor change the way they look. Normal funeral arrangements are possible.
Nonetheless, many families will not agree to donation. Often, a person who, in life, wanted to donate has not left clear instructions for his next of kin. Even if he is carrying an organ donor card at the time of death, no tissues can be harvested unless a family member gives consent. Organ cards can be obtained at your local Registry of Motor Vehicles or downloaded from the Organ Donor website.
If you would like to be an organ donor, talk to your family and friends about your decision. That way, if the time arrives, they will be clear on your wishes.
Here is what potential donors often ask UNOS staff members:
Who can become a donor?
You should always consider yourself a potential organ donor. Your medical condition at the time of death will determine what organs and tissues can be donated.
What can I donate?
Both organs and tissue can be donated. Organs include the heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver, and intestines. Examples of tissue that you can donate include bone, skin, eyes, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, arteries, veins, and heart valves.
Will my decision to become an organ and tissue donor affect the quality of my medical care?
No. Organ and tissue recovery takes place only after all efforts to save your life have been exhausted and death has been legally declared. The doctors working to save your life are entirely separate from the medical team involved in recovering organs and tissues.
Does it cost anything to donate organs and tissues?
No. Donation costs nothing to the donor's family or estate.
Is there an age limit for donating organs?
No set age limit exists for organ donation. At the time of death, the potential donor's organs are evaluated to determine their suitability for donation. Therefore, people of any age wishing to become organ and tissue donors should complete a donor card and inform their family that they wish to donate.
What medical conditions exclude a person from donating organs?
Conditions like HIV and cancer exclude people from donating organs. Otherwise, the organs are evaluated at the time of death.
Organ recipients must closely monitor their health, diet, exercise, lifestyle, and medications, but otherwise they live normal, active lives. Many recipients are so overjoyed about a second chance at life that they compete in the annual winter and summer World Transplant Games, a series of Olympic-style events for athletic people who have received a major organ.
United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS)
Canadian Association of Transplantation
Trillium Gift of Life Network
Becoming a donor. US Department of Health and Human Services Organ Donor website. Available at: http://organdonor.gov/becomingdonor/index.html. Accessed November 13, 2013.
Data. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network website. Available at: http://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/data. Updated November 8, 2013. Accessed November 13, 2013.
How the transplant system works. United Network for Organ Sharing website. Available at: http://www.unos.org/donation/index.php?topic=fact_sheet_1. Accessed November 13, 2013.
The need is real: data. US Department of Health and Human Services Organ Donor website. Available at: http://organdonor.gov/about/data.html. Accessed November 13, 2013.
Last reviewed November 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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