Saving lives with organ donation
Why organ donation?
Today in the United States, over 108,000 people wait on the transplant waiting list for an organ donation. Sadly, 17 people die every day waiting. According to the HRSA, 90% of adults support organ donation, but only 60% are registered donors. Because there are not enough post-mortem (after death) donations to make a dent in the waiting list, registration is critical. Only 3 people in 1000 die in a way that allows for organ donation.
Organ donation is incredibly impactful, and not just for one recipient. Donating organs and tissue after you die can save as many as 8 lives and improve 75 others. Sometimes, these facts are comforting to families who have lost a loved one. Knowing they saved other lives can help families deal with grief.
Organ donation myths
Some misconceptions prevent people from registering as organ donors. According to Mayo Clinic, here are some common myths:
Myth: The hospital staff or paramedics won't work as hard to save my life if I am an organ donor.
Fact: Healthcare professionals focus on saving your life first.
Myth: I might not be dead yet when they take my organs.
Fact: Sounds scary, but people who have agreed to donate organs are given even more tests (at no cost) to make sure they are actually dead than those who haven’t.
Myth: If I donate organs, I can’t have an open-casket funeral.
Fact: An organ donor's body is treated with the utmost respect, so there are no visible signs of donation.
Myth: I'm old. Nobody wants my organs.
Fact: Don’t disqualify yourself. There's no cutoff age for donating organs. The decision to use your organs is based on medical criteria alone.
Myth: I'm not in the best of health. Nobody wants my organs.
Fact: Don’t disqualify yourself. Some organs or tissues might not be suitable for transplant, but others might be fine.
Myth: Organ donation will cost my family money.
Fact: The family is charged for the costs to save your life, which can be interpreted as being related to organ donation. Costs for organ donation go to the transplant recipient.
Types of organ donation
Organs that can be donated are both lifesaving and life-improving.
- Heart transplants give the recipients a 5 year survival rate of over 70%, with vast improvement to their quality of life. Recipients include those with valve dysfunction and congenital defects.
- Kidney transplants dramatically increase the life span for the recipient, lasting up to 12 years. People with kidney failure who spend 3-4 days a week in dialysis enjoy happier lives without dialysis's unpleasant side effects, like nausea, itching, cramping, and low blood pressure.
- Liver failure can come on suddenly or happen over time. Over 70% of liver transplants last over 5 years, with over half lasting over 20.
- Lung transplants are often the last hope for those with damaged lungs from diseases like cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other respiratory illnesses.
- A person with difficulty controlling blood sugar may need a pancreas transplant, which is often done along with a kidney transplant if the patient is at risk for future kidney damage. A new pancreas can last up to 10 years, restore normal insulin production, and improve the recipient's quality of life.
- Intestinal failure affects both children and adults, and causes life-threatening complications. Intestinal transplants are one of the most challenging and rarely performed, but have seen increasingly positive outcomes.
- Corneal transplants, the most common and successful type of transplant, can restore vision.
- Tissues like tendons, skin, and bones can also be donated. Tissues repair wounds, save the lives of burn victims, and rebuild joints.
How to become an organ donor
People may now register to donate their organs upon death when getting their driver’s license, which makes the information easy to find and aids family in making the decision. If you want to sign up, you can do so here.
Living organ donations are categorized either as a:
- directed living donation, meaning your donation is intended for a specific person, or
- non-directed, meaning it's a donation that can go to anyone.
The donor must be compatible in terms of blood and tissue type, among other indicators. Lab tests evaluate compatibility. The prospective donor undergoes a physical examination and a psychological evaluation to ensure they make an informed decision and are healthy enough to donate.
Shared ethnicity is a requirement for matching donors and recipients, though certain blood types are more prevalent in minority populations. For this reason, the need for minority donors is high.
People younger than 18 can register to donate in many states, though the final say is with their parents or guardians. Because children are often in need of organ transplants with smaller organs, these donors are especially valuable.
Risks of organ donation
Short- and long-term risks exist for any surgery, such as pain, infection, allergic reactions, tissue injury, and even death. These risks decrease as transplants continue to become more common and surgical techniques advance. The overall risk for the donor is considered low.
For kidney donors, the remaining kidney will enlarge to function like two. The liver can regenerate and regain full function. Lung and (part of the) pancreas donations do not usually result in reduced function.
Benefits for donors
For most people, the benefits of organ donation greatly outweigh the risks. Saving the life of someone else is a gift that not many can give. Saving a friend or family member's life also allows for increased time and quality of time with that loved one.