How to Become an Organ Donor in the US (2021 Update)

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Becoming an organ donor is, for many people, a selfless act of giving the gift of life. Even those who have decided to become organ donors may not understand the entire process. For those who are undecided, dispelling myths and recognizing the value of organ donation may help you choose.

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About 114,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant, and about 20 people a day die waiting for a transplant. Organ donation is vital to save lives, and some organ tissue, such as kidneys, can be transplanted from a live donor. 

But other body tissue is also vital and requires a recently deceased donor. This includes skin, corneas, bone, tendons, heart valves, and other organs. In addition, whole-body donation allows medical institutions to do research and train tomorrow’s health care providers.

What Are the Requirements to Become an Organ Donor?

Anyone can become an organ donor. Most medical conditions do not prevent you from becoming an organ donor, but some do. For example, viral meningitis, tuberculosis, Creutzfeldt-Jakob (Mad Cow) disease, HIV, and a few others would disqualify you from donating.

People of any age, from infants to people in their 90s, can become organ donors. For someone younger than 18, a parent or legal guardian makes the final decision. Ethnicity, race, and legal status also don’t prevent someone from donating organs.

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Steps for Becoming an Organ Donor in the US

Aside from the simple act of registering to become a donor, you may want to understand the entire process of organ donation. Most people don’t realize how rare organ donation is, so the more people that donate, the more lives can be saved. 

Educate yourself about the process of organ donation

In some cases, people may want to become organ donors but be reluctant to do so due to myths and misunderstandings about the process. Some of the more common reasons people don’t want to become organ donors include mistrusting doctors and hospitals, or a belief that a recipient may not “deserve” the organs. 

Other misconceptions include believing that a physician won’t work as hard to save someone’s life if the person is a donor, or that the patient won’t really be dead when the death certificate is signed. In fact, organ donors undergo more tests to determine death than those who don’t. 

Register in your state to become a donor

Each state has a registration process to become an organ donor. You can sign up online or at your local motor vehicle department. You may sign up to become a donor years before you die, but circumstances later may prevent organ donation. 

Tell your friends and family that you’re an organ donor

The more people who know that you’re an organ donor, the better. For people who may be reluctant to donate, educating them about the lifesaving benefits of organ donation might push them to consider becoming one themselves. You can also let them know that all major religions support the lifesaving benefits of organ donation if they happen to have a religious argument against it.

Understanding the circumstances under which organs can be donated

When someone dies, they don’t always die and go straight to the hospital (or die at the hospital). Very few people die under circumstances that allow for organ donation. Organs have to be kept “alive” or temporarily preserved for organ donation through artificial or mechanical support. 

Instead, most organ and tissue donors are legally dead, with no hope of recovery, but still kept alive by medical intervention. If someone dies of cardiac arrest, the organs quickly become unusable for organ donation. However, that person can donate other tissues such as skin, corneas, and heart valves. 

If it’s clear that after the heart stops beating that there is no chance of survival, it’s possible to withdraw a ventilator remove the organs immediately to prevent deterioration. 

Organ procurement organizations

Federal law requires that the hospital notify the local organ procurement organization (OPO) when the patient is near death or has died. A representative from the OPO comes to the hospital to speak with the family about the possibility of organ donation if the person is not already registered. If the next of kin agree to organ donation, then the process can proceed. 

Making a match for the donation

After confirming that the donation can occur, the OPO contacts the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). The OPTN has the national database of all people waiting for a transplant. Information about the deceased organ donor is put into the system, which then begins a search for the best match for each organ. Some of the criteria include:

  • The age of the person and body size
  • Blood type compatibility
  • The proximity of waiting patients
  • The medical condition of the transplant recipient

People can donate organs such as the heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver, hands, face, and intestines. Tissues that can be donated are corneas, heart valves, blood vessels, skin, connective tissue, bone marrow, and stem cells.

Next steps for recovering and transporting organs

While a search is ongoing for an organ match, artificial support maintains the integrity of the organs. A transplant team takes over from the medical team, removing the organs and tissues from the donor’s body. Organs remain transplantable for a short time period, so they must be transported as quickly as possible to the organ recipient. Any incisions are surgically closed so as not to interfere with an open-casket funeral.

Transplanting organs and tissues

The organ recipient is waiting in the hospital for the transplant team to arrive with the donated organ. The organ is then transplanted into the patient. 

What Are the Requirements for Whole Body Donation After Death?

Almost anyone can donate their whole body after death. The term some people use is donating their bodies to science. There is no upper age limit, and even someone with diseases or medical conditions can donate their body since researchers often need donors with specific illnesses. 

There are no funeral or embalming costs with a whole-body donation, making it a great, low-cost option for final disposition. But most people donate their bodies to science to further scientific research and teaching rather than save money. 

Steps for Donating Your Whole Body After Death

The steps for donating your whole body are different from organ donation. The main difference is that the donation process is not done through the department of motor vehicles or online.

Someone may be ineligible for organ donation due to advanced age but appropriate for whole body donation. Organs often have to be paired with a similarly aged recipient, whereas this is not the case with whole-body donation. 

Contact a local institution or non-profit

Whole-body donation is more complicated than organ donation since there is no national database. States often have anatomical boards and programs, or you can contact a local university medical school or hospital for the donation process. The company Science Care also pairs donors with medical researchers and teaching hospitals. 

Eighty percent of whole-body donors donate their bodies to academic programs. Some donors choose to donate to for-profit or nonprofit companies. The American Association of Tissue Banks has strict criteria that are used to accredit these companies. 

Screening process

The organization or program you choose will conduct a screening process. This process involves a detailed medical history with past and current illnesses. For example, HIV and hepatitis, along with being severely under or overweight, may prevent donation. 

After death

After the person dies, another medical assessment determines appropriate donation criteria. From there, the body is transported to the chosen facility.

Matching

In some cases, the body is matched with requests from medical researchers who have specific needs. Some of the uses for a whole body donation include teaching medical students about surgery and how to give anesthetic blocks, testing new technology, and practicing coronary artery bypasses, installing pacemakers, performing valve replacements, angioplasty, and more. One body can be used for several different research and teaching projects over a long period of time. 

Remains

If the family requests it, once the organization is finished with the body, the remains will be cremated and returned to the family. A whole body can be used for several months up to several years for research and education. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Becoming an Organ Donor in the US

Becoming an organ donor in the US isn’t complicated, but the process does differ from state to state. The good news is that the federal government has a national database to pair the donor with people on the waiting list for organs. 

Do you get paid to become an organ donor? 

It is illegal to sell organs in the US, with fines or imprisonment for doing so. One reason for not paying for organs is to prevent wealthy people from having an unfair advantage in procuring a needed organ. If you’re a living donor, you’ll be responsible for the costs associated with the surgery, recovery, and lost wages. Your insurance may pay a portion of the costs.

Does the registration process differ state-by-state?

The donation process does differ state-by-state but with many similarities. We’ll walk you through the registration to become an organ donor in a few states to give you an idea of what’s involved. 

Texas

In Texas, there’s an online organ donation site that asks for demographic and identifying information. Texas does require a social security number and driver’s license or personal ID information. They also ask you to determine if you want all organs and tissues donated for research purposes if your organs are not suitable for transplant. 

Florida

Florida also has an online registry and asks for identifying information, including ethnicity.  The registration process allows you to exclude specific organs and tissues for donation. People between the ages of 13 and 17 have a different registry, and parents or the legal guardian make the final decision.

New York

New York has several different avenues for organ donation. The first is through the department of motor vehicles. Other options are through voter registration, the New York State of Health Health Plan Marketplace, or when you apply for a government-issued identification card. New York also has a state online option, which is straightforward in that you give your name, address, gender, and driver’s license number or Social Security number. Anyone over the age of 16 can register.

California

California has an online form for organ donation with required information that includes name, address, date, place of birth, driver’s license or ID, and whether you want to exclude specific organs or tissues. 

How old do you have to be to become an organ donor? 

Infant or child organ donation is different from an adult donation. When a donor is under 18, the parent or legal guardian always has to authorize the donation. In some states, people under the age of 18 can sign up as organ donors when they get their learner's permit or driver's license. 

However, anyone under 18 in the US is considered a minor. So even in states that permit organ donation registration, the parent or legal guardian must consent to the donation. 

Will my driver's license show my organ donor status after I register?

Your organ donation status will not necessarily show on your driver’s license. Some states will permit you to be an organ donor and opt not to have the donor status on your driver’s license. In addition, in states that offer alternative methods of registering as an organ donor, your status will not appear on your driver’s license. 

Becoming an Organ Donor in the US

Registering as an organ donor in the US is easy, but the circumstances that allow for the donation are more complicated. The more people that decide to become organ donors, the more lives that can be saved. Discomfort with the idea of organ or body donation is normal. The decision is personal and one only you and your family can make. 


Sources:

  1. “The Deceased Donation Process.” Human Resources and Services Administration. https://www.organdonor.gov/about/process/deceased-donation.html
  2. “Organ Donation: Don’t Let These Myths Confuse You.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/organ-donation/art-20047529
  3. “Understanding Death Before Donation.” Organ Transplants.org. http://www.organtransplants.org/understanding/death/
  4. “Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.” US Department of Health and Human Services. https://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/
  5. “Body Donation Programs by State.” Interactive Estate Document Systems. https://ieds.online/body-donation-programs-by-state/
  6. “What Happens to Your Body When It’s Donated to Science?” Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/what-happens-to-your-body-when-its-donated-to-science
  7. “Pediatric Donation.” Donate Life America. ttps://www.donatelife.net/types-of-donation/pediatric-donation/
  8. Burger, Kevyn. “Why You Might Want to Donate Your Body to Science.”  Next Avenue.30 April 2019. https://www.nextavenue.org/donate-your-body-science/
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