In 2022, the United States reached 1 million organ transplants, a historic benchmark. Today, over 400,000 people live with transplanted organs. Still, every year more than 100,000 men, women, and children wait anxiously on the U.S. tissue and organ waiting list, some dying before receiving an organ. By registering to become a donor, you could save and help as many as 75 people. Still, no matter how many people you might save, you may have questions about donation afterlife. Learn the facts before you decide.
Today, surgeons can transplant eight different organs and many other tissues for people in need.
One person can help as many as 75 others by becoming a tissue donor.
Over 100,000 people wait eagerly on the transplant list every day.
It’s easy to register and could be the most generous gift you ever give.
Many questions and myths exist about organ donation. Know the facts before you decide.
A tissue donation is a generous gift from someone who dies. Giving an anatomical gift to someone waiting for a transplant brings them and their loved ones unspeakable hope and life.
If you become a donor, your heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, pancreas, and intestines could save at least eight lives. Other tissue like heart valves, tendons, nerve tissue, veins, arteries, and corneas can also be gifted. So many transplants are possible that you could help up to 75 people as one tissue donor.
Concerns and questions often keep people from becoming anatomical gift-givers. Knowing the facts will help you decide.
Myths about organ donation
Myth: Doctors and nurses won’t work hard to save me if I’m an organ donor.
Fact: As a registered nurse, I cared for many dying patients in the hospital. I assure you doctors and nurses do not notice a patient’s donor status when working hard to save their life. Hospital teams ignore the issue until death is certain.
Also, the lifesaving staff is a different team than the transplant staff. In most countries, paying for tissue donation is illegal. There’s no incentive to value someone’s organs over saving a life.
Myth: My religion is against organ donation.
Fact: Most religions, including all major religions, support tissue donation. Even a Jehovah’s Witness may donate some tissue despite their rejection of blood transfusions. Talk with your religious leaders and review your sacred texts to be certain.
Myth: I’m too young to donate.
Fact: Youth under age 18 can choose to become a tissue and organ donor with parental consent. Some recipients need small-sized organs. Donations from younger people may be their only hope. Donating your child’s tissue after they die is an excruciating decision. But many families suffering such a loss feel comforted knowing their gift may save another child. One aunt who unexpectedly lost her nephew called his organ donation “the light at the end of our dark tunnel.”
Myth: I’m too old to donate.
Fact: There is no age limit to tissue donation. In 2020, one in three tissue donors was over the age of 50. One donor was 92 and donated his liver to a woman who was 69. Every age is the right age.
Myth: I’m not healthy enough to donate organs or tissues.
Fact: With so many different tissues and organs to donate, even people with health issues can register to donate. Corneas are often viable for donation regardless of health issues. With a 97% effective rate, over 82,000 corneal transplants gave people sight in 2018.
Myth: Donating tissue will delay my funeral and keep me from having an open casket service.
Fact: Tissue donation won’t delay your burial service because tissue must be harvested and transplanted quickly. The precise and careful work of surgeons and morticians also allows for open-casket funerals, no matter what you donate.
Myth: My body may be used for scientific research if I donate organs or tissue.
Fact: Anatomical gifts for science is different from transplant donations. The national list of transplant donors only registers you to gift your body for transplants, not scientific research.
Myth: My family will have to pay to donate my organs.
Fact: Hospitals do not charge donors and their loved ones for any part of the donation process. Instead, the receiving patient and their insurance company cover the donation cost. The hospital bill only reflects the cost of your medical care, and your estate will pay that cost, not your family's.
Myth: The rich and famous get organs and tissues first.
Fact: The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. government regulates the donation process closely. A national computer system starts the search using factors like how sick a patient is, how long they’ve waited, how close they are to the donated organ, and if the donor and recipient match well.
Myth: It’s complicated to become an organ donor.
Fact: Becoming a registered donor is a simple task. You can register online or in person with your local Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. It’s easy to register when you get a new driver’s license or sign up for your learner’s permit. Be sure to let your loved ones know so they honor your decision.
Myth: My family can donate my organs after I die against my wishes.
Fact: If you don't want to donate and you document that decision in your living will, the medical team is required to respect your wishes. Without your wishes in writing, the medical team will ask your family if they want to donate your tissue after trying all lifesaving treatments.
1. What is the benefit of registering to become a donor?
Deceased tissue donation gives you the power to help as many as 75 people. It also relieves your loved ones of another task and decision when they’re overwhelmed with grief. You can leave a legacy of kindness to strangers and your family by donating.
2. Does race matter for organ donation?
Transplants are possible between a donor and recipient of different races. However, matching organs with members of the same race often increases transplant success. This makes the wait longer and the need greater for some ethnic populations.
3. Who manages and regulates tissue donation?
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) manages and regulates the organ and transplantation system in the United States. The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a non-profit group, contracts with HRSA to manage the transplant waiting list called the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). At the same time, not-for-profit Organ Procurement Organizations (OPOs) serve as a link bringing together the donors and recipients.
4. How does tissue donation work?
Once you register as a donor if you die or are near death despite receiving all lifesaving treatments, your medical team contacts the local OPO. As a nurse, I made this phone call to notify the OPO when I cared for dying patients. First, they search the registry for the patient. Then the OPO starts a medical review if the patient is registered or if loved ones approve the donation. Next, they notify the national network of possible donations.
The network finds a patient who matches the tissue and alerts their transplant team. The transplant surgeon makes the final decision on whether the organ is a good match. When it is, a surgical team carefully removes tissue from the deceased donor. The OPO then sends the gift to the receiving patient's hospital, where their surgical team transplants the tissue.
5. Can I donate if I die at home?
People who die at home may be able to donate their eyes and certain tissue that survives longer without oxygen. If you wish to die at home but also want to donate, you can still register as a donor. When you do, inform your loved ones and document it in your living will, also known as advance directives.
6. Will they take my brain as a donation?
Your brain or any part of your brain will not be donated. You can offer your brain for the scientific study if you’d like to support research on disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia. To learn more, NIH offers a helpful article called Brain Donation: A Gift for Future Generations.
7. Can I sell my organs?
To be sure transplantation is fair, it is illegal to sell any tissue and organs in most countries. When you donate, you help reduce organ trafficking by providing more freely donated tissue. However, even in the U.S., organs are still sold illegally.
Living donors may gift sperm, plasma, and ova (women’s eggs) and receive compensation. The donation of tissue is always a gift, not a product. Therefore, it is never sold. It is always considered a donation even if the gift is reimbursed.
8. Can my loved ones meet the recipient of my tissues or organs?
Your loved ones can meet or correspond with the recipient of your tissue donation if both parties agree. The transplant hospital and the local OPO coordinate the contact.
9. Is there anything I should do after I register to become a donor?
Once you register, be sure to inform your loved ones of your end-of-life wishes. You may want to talk with your medical provider and religious leader, too. Lastly, keep your personal information updated with the donation registry.
Imagine fulfilling the dream of someone waiting day after day for that life-giving phone call. Donating tissues and organs could be the most generous gift you ever give, saving and changing lives.