Medically Approved

The top 7 myths about organ donation

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Undecided about whether to be an organ donor? Here are the facts to help you decide if it’s right for you.

Elizabeth Millard

By Elizabeth Millard

Nature has a beautiful way of recycling what has died to fuel new life. Fallen leaves on your lawn decompose to provide food for the soil’s microbes. A decaying tree serves as shelter for animals big and small.

Thinking about what happens to your body after you die might make you feel uneasy. After all, you used it to embrace family, see your children grow and impact the lives of those around you. But what if you could continue to give back, even after you pass?

Donating your organs is one way to give another person a second chance at life. More than 100,000 people in the United States are waiting for an organ donation, according to the American Transplant Foundation (ATF).

Deciding whether you should become an organ donor is deeply personal. But for some, misconceptions about the process can stand in the way of making a clear-headed decision. Here are the facts you need to determine whether donation is right for you.

(If you or someone you love is facing a life-or-death situation, counseling may be able to help ease the suffering. Check out these 6 reasons to try virtual therapy.)

Myth: Doctors don’t work as hard to save the lives of organ donors

Fact: That is absolutely not true, says Tabitha Cranie, MD. She’s a family practice physician in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Every doctor must adhere to a rigorous set of professional ethical standards. And that includes providing lifesaving care — whether the patient is an organ donor or not.

Myth: Organ donation goes against most religions

Fact: Not so. According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), many religions support organ donation. These include:

  • Episcopalianism
  • Islam
  • Judaism
  • Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Presbyterianism
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Southern Baptist Convention
  • United Methodist Church

If you’re not sure whether your religion supports organ donation, ask your faith leader.

Myth: Organ donors can’t have open-casket funerals and have to be cremated

Fact: This is rarely the case, says Rome Thorstenson, founder of In-Valhalla.com, an online guide to end-of-life issues, including funerals and memorials.

“When donors are embalmed, the mortician is able to make the body presentable,” he says. “For example, if the spine is removed in the donation process, it will be replaced by a prosthetic.” These kinds of procedures can make the process more complicated, but morticians are skilled at preparing organ donors. All bodies are treated with respect and dignity, Thorstenson says.

That means cremation is not automatic, he adds. Organ donors can be cremated or buried according to their wishes or those of their family, just like non-donors.

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Myth: Not that many people really need organ donations

Fact: Organ diseases are a serious public health issue. According to the ATF, kidney and liver disease kill more people each year than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. “The need for organ transplants is on the rise due to the number of people with end-stage organ failure,” says Dr. Cranie.

And that need just isn’t being met. Sadly, an average of 17 people die each day waiting for a transplant. And another name is added to the national transplant waiting list every 9 minutes.

One reason: Only about 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organ donation, according to the HRSA. You don’t have to be in perfect health (or young, for that matter) to be an organ donor. But providers do have strict criteria that they need to follow. That means donors have to be in a hospital and on life support to be eligible.

The more people that sign up to be organ donors, the higher the chance that the need will be met.

Myth: You can donate organs and tissues only after you die

Fact: Nearly 6,000 donations are made each year by living donors, the HRSA reports. This happens most often between family members and friends, but some people choose to donate to someone they don’t know because the need is so great.

Organs that can be given while you’re still alive include 1 kidney and part of a liver, lung or pancreas. You can also donate bone marrow, bone and skin.

Myth: Becoming an organ donor is complicated

Fact: Not so. If you want to be an organ donor, the best way to make your wishes known is to complete an official registration. You can simply fill out an organ donor card when you renew your driver’s license. Or you can visit organdonor.gov and quickly register with your state’s donor registry.

You may also want to spell out your decision in an advance health care directive. This is a legal document that spells out your end-of-life wishes. (Your health care provider can help you complete yours.) And let your family know about your decision. That will help ensure that your wishes are fulfilled.

Related reading: How to talk to someone who is seriously ill or dying.

Myth: Each donor can save only 1 life

Fact: The HRSA notes that you can actually save 8 lives as a donor, and you can enhance the lives of more than 75 others.

For example, donating a cornea (the outer layer of your eye that allows you to see clearly) doesn’t save a life. But it may give someone the gift of sight. Similarly, you could donate a tendon that helps repair a damaged joint, skin that helps a burn victim after a traumatic injury, and bones that could be used in hip replacements or spinal surgeries.

Consider the ripple effect of even 1 donation: children who can grow up because of a transplant and eventually have children of their own; families that can cherish their grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers for decades to come, thanks to organ donation.

The fact is that organ donation doesn’t just save lives. It restores futures that may have been lost otherwise.

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Additional sources
Organ donation statistics:
American Transplant Foundation
How organ donation works and who can donate: U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration