What To Know About Organ Donation

You may need an organ transplant if one of your organs fails or is damaged by disease or injury. During an organ transplant, doctors remove an organ from another person and place it into a patient’s body. Doctors must specifically match donors to recipients to reduce the risk of transplant rejection, which can happen if a patient’s immune system attacks the new organ.

The organ may come from a living donor or someone who has died. When a person dies, they’re evaluated for donor suitability based on their current condition, medical history, and age. Organs that can be transplanted include:

  • Heart
  • Intestine
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Lung
  • Pancreas

Tissues that can be transplanted include:

  • Cornea
  • Middle ear
  • Skin
  • Bone
  • Bone marrow
  • Heart valves
  • Connective tissue — muscles, blood vessels, nerves

To be considered for potential donation, join a donor registry. Registries allow individuals to provide legal consent for the anatomical gift of organs, tissues, and eyes. An easy way to become a donor is to register when you get your driver’s license. You can join the registry by filling out a Document of Gift form at your local Department of Motor Vehicles. Donor registry information for any state is available from www.donatelife.net.

What recipients should know

If you need a transplant, a hospital’s transplant team will determine whether you’re a good transplant candidate. If you are, you can receive an organ from a loved one via directed donation. If there is no one who can donate to you directly, you’ll likely place you on a national waiting list. And then you’ll wait. There’s no way to know how long you’ll have to wait to receive a donor organ because issues of compatibility and availability affect this process in dramatic ways. 

The national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network is maintained by the United Network of Organ Sharing, or UNOS. Organ donors are matched to waiting for recipients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When an organ becomes available, a local organ procurement organization sends medical, social, and genetic information to UNOS, which then generates a list of potential recipients based on:

  • Blood type
  • Tissue type
  • Organ size
  • Medical urgency of the patient’s illness
  • Time already spent on the waiting list
  • Geographical distance between the donor and the recipient

The donation of a healthy kidney or a segment of a healthy liver from a living human being can also be arranged through transplant centers. An independent donor advocate and a dedicated living donor multidisciplinary team represent the interests and well-being of potential living donors.

Surgeons performed more than 39,000 organ transplants in 2020. Currently, there are more than 100,000 men, women and children on organ transplant waiting lists in the U.S. Another person is added to a transplant waiting list every nine minutes.

Undergoing an organ transplant can lengthen your life. Organ transplants improve quality of life by, for example, removing the need for dialysis with a kidney transplant or restoring sight with a cornea transplant. Organ recipients take antirejection medications after undergoing a transplant.

A single deceased donor can save up to eight people’s lives by donating their organs as well as improve the lives of more than 75 people by donating their tissues.

This is just an introduction to a complex and emotionally fraught topic. Decisions regarding your place in the world of organ donation should be made in conjunction with your family and, as necessary, with legal and medical professionals.