One item that’s often overlooked in the end-of-life planning process is what, if anything, to do with our viable organs. Knowing that this decision has already been made can prevent family from agonizing over a difficult decision, allowing them to focus more on the grieving process and treasure your final act of generosity.
About 95% of U.S. adults support organ donation. However, just 54% have taken steps to register as donors.1
One deceased donor can save an estimated eight lives. That’s quite a legacy to leave behind! If you’re interested to learn how to become an organ donor, read on.
Why Organ Donations Are Needed
According to Donate Life America, there are more than 116,000 men, women, and children currently on registries who require lifesaving organs, and a new person is added every 10 minutes. The wait may be years for some types of tissue, based on factors such as availability, compatibility (blood type), priority (is their organ ready to critically fail at any moment or just at risk), and the recipient’s age and health.
It’s not uncommon for some people to die before they make it to the top of the list. Organ donation is about saving lives and improving the quality of life for the critically or chronically ill.
What Organs Can Be Donated?
Just about any type of viable tissue is needed and appreciated. United Network for Organ Sharing, which facilitates transplantations nationwide, said there are more than a dozen types of organs or combinations of organs and tissue that are commonly donated in the U.S., including, but not limited to:
kidney, liver, pancreas, heart, lung, intestine, abdominal wall, scalp, limbs, heart, lung, corneas, bones, bone marrow, muscles, facial tissue, and reproductive organs
Although major organs like hearts and lungs must be transplanted within hours of death, some tissue can be stored for longer periods of time. For instance, a transplant or tissue center may keep donated muscular tissue for several months.
How to Become an Organ Donor After Death
Simply saying “I want to be an organ donor” aloud, while a generous intention, isn’t legally binding. This preference should be in writing, and your loved ones need to know. The more places you put this preference in writing, the more likely it is that your wish will be honored.
Anyone age 18 or older can sign up for an organ donor registry, even people in their 80s or 90s. Doctors can also accept organs from people younger than 18 with parental permission.
1. Register at OrganDonor.gov
Each state differs slightly in its regulations and registry process. OrganDonor.gov will provide you will all the information you need to register as an organ donor in your state.
Prospective donors can indicate if they’d like to donate tissue, organs, corneas or any combination as needed.
2. Add the “Organ Donor” designation to your state-issued ID or license
Next time you visit your state’s department of motor vehicles request that the organ donor designation be added to your ID or driver’s license. This will usually be addressed on your ID renewal form. Many medical emergency responders are trained to check your ID for this designation if you are unresponsive to rescue/resuscitation attempts, so this is a great way to make sure your wish is honored if a fatal car crash or medical emergency occurs.
3. Use Cake to make sure your family & health care proxy knows
Cake is an end-of-life planning website (you’re on our blog right now!) that encourages people to share final wishes like this with their families and health care proxy (agent). A health care proxy is someone you choose to make medical decisions for you if you’re incapacitated. It’s critical that this individual knows to advocate for your wish to donate organs. If everyone is on the same page, there is less likelihood of a conflict. You can create a free Cake profile to take care of your end-of-life planning and make your organ donor preferences clear to everyone who needs to know.
4. Make sure your medical care team knows
This information needs to be shared when you enter a medical facility during an emergency or for a routine procedure. Your medical care team will appreciate knowing this information just in case things take a turn for the worse.
How to Become a Living Organ Donor
If you feel passionate about becoming a donor, there are ways you may be able to help while you’re alive! While registering to become an organ donor after death is immensely helpful, you may want to explore some opportunities to donate parts of your organs to help shorten the waiting list for two of the biggest organ donation needs: kidney and liver transplants.
Live Kidney Transplants
Currently, the highest need is for kidneys. About 80% of people on an organ donor registry are waiting for one or two of these organs. The National Kidney Foundation reported that as of 2016, this number was 100,791, with an average wait time of 3.6 years. About 13 people die a day waiting for a match.
Live kidney donation has become a common practice in an attempt to meet the overwhelming need. Learn more about becoming a live kidney donor.
Live Liver Transplants
Livers are also in high demand since there are a variety of diseases which can cause it to deteriorate. A living donor can provide a partial liver since an incomplete one can still function inside both bodies. The recipient can stay on the waitlist for a complete organ in the future. Learn more about becoming a live liver donor.
Can I Donate Organs If I Have a Disease?
It depends. In some cases, multiple organs can be taken from one person, provided the organs are not damaged or diseased. For instance, someone who died of lung cancer may still have viable corneas but not lungs.
In rare cases, such as active cancers that have spread through much of the body, massive trauma that has badly damaged organs, or system-wide infections like HIV, organs may not be able to be harvested. Consult with your doctor to determine if live organ donation or organ donation after death is an option based on your unique medical condition.
Should I Become an Organ Donor?
Organ donation professionals agree that the need for healthy organs continues to grow. Waiting lists are long and some people have been waiting years for a match. Your decision to donate is an entirely personal one that should be based on your own values. You should know that there’s no personal financial cost to becoming a live donor or donor after death. One thing that’s certain: donating can help others live longer and experience the joy of better health. It’s a tremendous way to give back to the world with gratitude when we reach the end of our lives.
- “Organ Donor Statistics,” U.S. Government Information on Organ Donor and Transplantation, www.organdonor.gov/statistics-stories/statistics.html
- “National Donate Life Month April 2018: Donation and Transplantation Statistics,” Donate Life America, www.donatelife.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/2018-NDLM-Donation-and-Transplantation-Statistics-FINAL-12.17-FINAL-public.pdf
- “Sign Up to be an Organ Donor,” U.S. Government Information on Organ Donor and Transplantation, www.organdonor.gov/
- “Organ Donation and Transplantation Statistics,” National Kidney Foundation, www.kidney.org/news/newsroom/factsheets/Organ-Donation-and-Transplantation-Stats