Organ transplants have come a long way since the first successful transplant of a kidney in 1954. Last year, the United States reached a milestone of one million organ transplants since that historic first one.
Despite all the progress made, the need for more donors to sign up remains as urgent as ever.
Misconceptions are an obstacle. False information or myths about organ donation can deter some people from signing up to become organ donors.
One myth is that there already are enough organs for those who need them. Fact is more donors are needed because of a shortage of organs suitable for donation.
Currently, more than 100,000 people are on the National Transplant Wait list. Every ten minutes, a new name is added. On average, 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
“The people on the transplant wait list are usually in the final stages of kidney, liver, heart, lung or pancreatic diseases or disorders and need an organ transplant to live,” says Christopher Marsh, MD, division chief of the Scripps Center for Organ Transplantation at Scripps Green Hospital. “People who sign up to become donors have the potential to help save or improve lives.”
Don’t let these myths keep you from deciding to become an organ donor.
If you are sick or injured and admitted to the hospital, the number one priority is to save your life, regardless of whether you are registered as an organ donor. In fact, the medical team taking care of you is different than the transplant team. Organ donation can only be considered after every attempt has been made to save a patient’s life but failed.
Brain death is a legal and medical definition of death. It is the complete loss of brain function and cannot be reversed. A person in a coma typically has some brain function.
Some causes of brain death include catastrophic head injuries, a stroke or heart attack that have deprived the brain of blood for too long. Other organs can work for a short time with the aid of a breathing machine.
Typically, two separate physicians must administer specific tests to determine that someone is brain dead. Neither can be involved with the hospital’s transplant team.
Most major religions support organ and tissue donation if it does not impede or hasten the death of the donor. Organ donation is largely viewed as an act of charity and love.
If in doubt, speak with your spiritual or religious leaders or guides.
There is no age limit to organ donation. 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.
Donation should not interfere with funeral plans. Transplant teams treat the donor’s body with care and respect so there are no signs of organ or tissue donation, and the body can be viewed in an open casket funeral.
Celebrity and financial status are not taken into consideration when it comes to allocating donated organs. Priority is based on medical data showing a patient’s need for a transplant. This includes medical need, time spent waiting, blood and tissue type and match potential.
Most organs go to patients in the area where doctors recovered the organs.
While most donations take place after the donor’s death, people can donate certain organs or tissue to a patient in need while still living. Nearly 6,000 living donations take place each year. Most happen between family members or close friends.
A kidney is the most common donation. Living donors can also donate a portion of their liver, intestines, pancreas or a lung or part of a lung.
Donors and their families are not responsible for any costs associated with a donation. Most transplant surgeries are covered by the organ recipient’s health insurance.
Signing up happens through your state system. You can sign up online through your state registry, in person at your local motor vehicle department or through the Health app if you have an iPhone.
Anyone over 18 can sign up and in some states people under 18 can also do so.
It is vitally important that organ donors discuss their decision with family members.
“The decision to register as a donor is a personal one, but it ultimately involves more than one person,” says Dr. Marsh. “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.”
In 2021, more than 40,000 organ transplants were performed for the first time. This included nearly 25,000 kidney transplants, more than 9,000 liver transplants and nearly 4,000 heart transplants. Despite these numbers, more is being asked to reduce long wait lists and save more lives.
The federal government recently announced a plan to improve and modernize the national organ transplant system with a focus on technology, data transparency, governance, operations and quality improvement and innovation.