Every 10 minutes in North America, a gravely ill person begins an uncertain journey. Living through the final stages of kidney, liver, heart, lung or pancreatic diseases or disorders, they are added to the organ transplant waiting list — joining plenty of others in an arduous waiting game. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS), there are currently more than 117,000 people on the waitlist; 18 people die every day waiting for a suitable organ.
On the other side of the coin, more than 100 million people have signed up to make a gift of life by becoming organ donors after death. Last year, deceased organ donors made 28,000 organ transplants possible. Another 6,000 people opted to be living donors of kidneys or partial organs.
Organ donation decisions can be fraught with emotion. They may also harder to make because of common misconceptions, misinformation and myths.
“This is completely false,” says Michelle Meyer, director of clinical services at Scripps Center for Organ and Cell Transplantation. If you are sick or injured and admitted to the hospital, the number one priority is to save your life. Organ donation can only be considered after brain death has been declared by a physician. Many states have adopted legislation allowing individuals to legally designate their wish to be a donor in the case of brain death. Nevertheless, in many states organ procurement organizations also require consent from the donor’s family.
Although this misrepresentation can be commonly found online and in tabloids, brain death is a clear clinical condition. If catastrophic head injuries, a stroke or heart attack have deprived the brain of blood for too long, automatic neural response (including breathing) are no longer possible without mechanical assistance, and there is no possibility of recovery or rehabilitation from the severe brain injury sustained due to lack of oxygen. Typically two separate physicians — sometimes hours apart — must administer specific tests to detect brain death.
There are nearly as many different outlooks on organ donation as there are religious denominations. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has gathered official and unofficial stances on organ donation from a wide variety of religious groups. For example, the Catholic Church regards organ donation as an act of charity and love; so do many Protestant sects, Islam and many varieties of Judaism. When in doubt, speak with your spiritual or religious leaders or guides.
If you are under 18 and wish to become an organ donor, you may do so. You simply need to obtain your parents’ consent before joining a donor registry. And many successful organ transplants have involved donors over 50 — some well into their 80s. Your medical condition at the time of death will determine which organs and tissue can be donated.
It is vitally important organ donors discuss their choice with family members. The decision to register as a donor is a personal one, but it ultimately involves more than one person. In most states, hospitals can legally proceed with organ, eye or tissue donation without consent from next of kin if you have a driver’s license with an “organ donor” designation or have signed up with an organ donor registry. However, it’s important to talk to your family about your decision to donate so they are aware of your wishes and will feel comfortable honoring them. If you wish to be a donor and suspect your family may not honor your wishes, you may consider entrusting a close friend who you know will follow your wishes with a durable power of attorney.