More than 107,000 people of all ages, races, ethnicities and genders are currently on the transplant waiting list.1 While nearly 40,000 people received an organ transplant just last year, an average of 17 people die every day waiting for an organ.1 That’s because the number of people on the transplant list is much higher than the number of available organs.
The process of organ donation is complex and requires the cooperation of many people and organizations. Once an organ becomes available — either through a deceased donor or living donor — a list of potential recipients is generated, and the organ is matched to the best possible recipient. Because it’s such a coordinated effort, it may feel like there’s nothing you can do to help. But that’s simply not true.
As a transplant surgeon, I know firsthand that there are lots of patients waiting for an organ. The best thing you can do to help is to register to be an organ donor and tell your friends and family about your wishes. Maybe you’ve never considered donating an organ, or maybe you feel concerned about something you’ve heard. Here, I break down the facts.
1. You can be an organ donor at any age.
It doesn’t really matter your age when it comes to organ donation. When a person dies, doctors will decide if organ donation is appropriate based on the health of the person’s organs and other factors.
In 2019, more than 60% of donors were over the age of 50, and the oldest donor in the U.S. was 92!2 You're never too old to give the gift of life or good health to someone in need.
2. You may be an organ donor even if you think you're not in the best health.
Doctors evaluate each potential donor at the time of death to decide if they can donate an organ. Organ donation has been possible and successful even for donors who have had illness and injury.
3. You have control over which organ(s) you decide to donate.
At the current time, you may choose to donate your heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver and intestines, but you do not have to donate all of them. Many states let you decide which organs you’d like to donate when you register to be an organ donor.
4. People in the LGBTQ community may donate organs, too.
Gender identity and sexual orientation have no bearing on a person’s ability to become an organ donor. If your organs are healthy, you can be a donor.
5. If you elect to be an organ donor, your doctors will still do everything they can to give you life-saving care in the hospital.
The top priority of your doctors and healthcare teams is to save lives and help patients get back to optimal health following illness or injury. It’s only when all life-saving efforts are exhausted that doctors may discover you’re a registered organ donor.
Even then, doctors perform tests such as cerebral angiogram or electroencephalogram (EEG) to see if any blood is flowing to the brain. If there is even the slightest brain activity, you are not considered a donor.
Organ donation is only an option if a patient experiences brain death — an irreversible condition that causes blood to permanently stop circulating in the brain. Just after brain death occurs, there may still be activity in the vital organs, such as your heart and lungs, but this activity will soon cease. That’s why it’s so important for doctors to be absolutely sure brain death has occurred.
6. Organ donation is discussed with family members as soon as possible after death occurs.
Because your organ will only stay healthy for a short period of time after it’s removed, a transplant coordinator will talk with your family very soon after your death.
While the process moves quickly, your family will be well-informed and treated with compassion. We encourage anyone who is registering to be an organ donor to talk with your friends, family, other caregivers and health partners about your wishes.
7. If donating an organ, your loved ones can still have an open casket funeral.
The transplant team removes the donor organ in an operating room, taking care to close all incisions. Because the procedure is performed with respect and compassion, your loved ones can still have an open casket funeral if they wish.
8. Your family will not have to pay for organ donation.
Your family will not be charged with any expenses specifically related to organ donation.
9. If you want to be an organ donor, register with your state.
Registering with your state is really the only way you can make sure your organ donor status is recognized. If you’re under the age of 18, your parent or legal guardian must also authorize your registration.
As mentioned before, we also recommend that you tell your family, friends or caretakers about your wish to be an organ donor.
How to sign up to be an organ donor
There are 2 ways to register as an organ donor:
1. Register online with your state.
2. Sign up through your state’s motor vehicle agency.
If you’re over the age of 18, you are eligible to sign up. If you’re under the age of 18, you may still register, but you will also need consent from your parent or legal guardian.
Let your legacy live on
Once you decide to register as an organ donor, have a conversation with those closest to you and let them know your plans. After you’re gone, your loved ones will represent your wish to try and help save a life, or improve the health of someone who deserves a second chance.
Through the years, I've witnessed hundreds of people who have been given another chance at life because of the generosity of strangers through organ donation. I'm registered as an organ donor, and there's nothing more special than saving lives.
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