Organ and tissue donation is a gift you leave others when you die. While it's also possible to donate organs while one is still living, more often donation takes place upon death.
According to the U.S. government, 77 people receive transplanted organs each day. That's the good news. The bad news is that 19 people in the United States die each day waiting for an organ that never becomes available. At any given moment, approximately 100,000 Americans are awaiting the gift of an organ or body tissue from someone who has died.
Organ recipients, and the families of donors and recipients, find satisfaction in both the giving and receiving. Someone who receives a new organ or tissue will live a longer and healthier life, or the quality of his life will improve. The family of a donor often feels as if some of the grief of losing their loved one is lessened by the knowledge that someone else's life has been improved by the donation.
As patients consider their end-of-life wishes, they will want to include decisions about donating organs, tissue or even their entire bodies. The following questions and answers may help you make those decisions for yourself.
Q. What parts of the human body can be transplanted?
A. Many parts of the human body can be transplanted to other people to improve their quality of life, or to help them survive. From eyes, livers, kidneys and skin, to hearts and stem cells, the parts are harvested immediately upon death and implanted or infused into someone else.
One body may provide as many as 50 opportunities for transplantation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Q. What do you mean transplantation helps extend someone's life?
A. Many body parts are vital to survival. When a heart or a liver is transplanted, it extends the recipient's life. The person who died no longer needs that part, but it may still be in good condition and can be used to help someone else live longer.
Q. How does organ or tissue transplantation improve someone else's quality of life?
A. Here are some examples: Eyes can be transplanted to help a blind person see again. Even if the vision of the person who dies isn't perfect, it may be better than someone who has no eyesight at all. A burn victim's life will be much improved by receiving healthy skin from someone who has died. A new kidney may allow someone who is on regular dialysis the freedom to stop dialysis treatments.
Q. If I decide to become a donor, who decides who will get the organs and tissue I donate?
A. The decisions about who will get those healthy organs and tissue need to be fair and objective. In the United States, organs cannot legally be bought or sold, and decisions about who will be granted the newly harvested organs are made based on level of need.
An organization called UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) is the overall governance for how those decisions are made. They maintain lists of patients' names, their geographic locations and their need. As patients get sicker waiting for organs to be available, those lists are updated.
At any given moment, you can check the UNOS website to see how many people in the United States are waiting for what specific organs or tissues.
Q. If I decide to donate my tissue and organs, what happens upon my death? What will my family's experience be?
A. If you die in a hospital or other facility, a procurement specialist will contact your next-of-kin immediately upon, or just prior to your death. Your family will be given information, asked questions about whether you would want to donate organs and tissues, or even your whole body (see below). If it's available, the specialist will check the back of your driver's license to see if you have designated your willingness to be a donor.
Your family will have a very short time, sometimes only minutes after your death, to decide whether they want that donation made. That's why it's critical you make your wishes known to your family while you are still healthy enough to have the conversation.
Q. What if I have a terminal illness? Why would they give someone my body parts if I was very sick before I died?
A. Regardless of how sick someone is when he dies, there may still be portions of the body that can be transplanted. It's true that some infectious diseases will cause the transplant decision-makers to reject a patient as a donor. Patients considering donation are advised to make the decision to donate, and let the professionals decide at the time of death whether a donation can be accepted.
Another kind of donation, but just as much of a gift, is whole body donation. When a body is donated to medical science, it provides the opportunity for student doctors to learn about anatomy and disease. It also allows researchers to learn more about diseases, how they start and progress, and perhaps some of the ways the disease could have been prevented or cured.
Medical universities and research labs are highly appreciative of donations of human bodies. The great majority of donations are accepted, although some infectious diseases may rule out donation.
Find more information about whole body donation by contacting an academic medical college near you, or one of the nationwide programs that accepts bodies. Two organizations that may be helpful are the Anatomy Gifts Registry, and Science Care.
Q. Some people object to organ, tissue or body donation due to religious reasons. How do I know what my religion dictates?
We'll answer this question in Part 2.