Organ donation is critical for the health and wellbeing of thousands of people across America. However, for every person that receives the phone call they’ve been waiting for, dozens more on the waiting list pass away never having received a suitable organ for transplant.
The need for organ donors is tremendous and, with less than one percent of registered donors making it through to the donation process, it’s a need that grows daily.
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If you’re considering registration or your loved one has already signed up, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the steps of the donation process.
Being prepared will also help when it’s time to authorize a donation of your loved one’s organs and carry out end-of-life arrangements such as a funeral or cremation. This article contains what you need to know about the steps and process of organ donation.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling the details of their unfinished business such as organ donation can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
Steps for the Organ Donation Process
There is an unfortunate amount of mystery and misconception that surrounds the organ donation process. Misunderstandings about donation are one of the reasons why so few Americans are signed up for it even though 90 percent of the country supports it.
1. Registration of donor
While saying “I want to be an organ donor” tells people of your good intentions, it’s not quite good enough if you actually want to become an organ donor. All organ donors must be registered with their state to be included in the organ donation process when they die.
Since each state has slightly different methods for organ donor registry, the most helpful thing to do is visit OrganDonor.gov. There, you can choose the state where you live and complete the registration process. Once you’ve selected your state, the website will automatically send you to the appropriate state website where you can register for organ donation.
After you register, you’ll want to have the organ donor designation added to your driver’s license. Be sure to state your choice in several places including an end-of-life plan, and tell your family about your wishes, as well.
If you’re unsure about signing yourself up, take some time to do some research and learn about the impact of organ donation. It’s important to understand the pros and cons of organ donation before you sign up so you can make a confident decision.
2. Death of a registered donor
One of the biggest misconceptions about organ donation is the belief that when a registered donor gets into a vehicular accident or another incident of the kind, that medical professionals don’t try to save their life. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
When a donor becomes sick, gets into an accident, or dies, medical staff on scene do everything in their power to preserve the persons’ life. Only after they have tried every medical intervention possible and there is nothing more than can be done is a person - any person regardless of their donor registration - pronounced dead.
3. Evaluation of the donor
Not every registered donor dies in a way that makes organ donation possible. In fact, only 1 percent of all registered donors can even become eligible for donation. When a donor dies, or when their death is imminent, medical professionals that coordinate with the organ donor registry evaluate the person. The evaluation includes things like:
- Drawing blood to test for infectious diseases
- Running lab tests to determine the health of internal organs
- Potential scans including CAT scans and X-rays
- Collecting the person’s medical history
- Giving the person a physical examination
If the donor’s labs come back clear and their organs are healthy enough for a transplant, the green light will be given for donation.
4. Family authorization acquired
Once it is determined that the person is fit to provide organ donation, the next of kin will be approached. Even if the person is a registered donor, it’s still up to the next of kin to provide authorization. If the next of kin refuses to give authorization or sign the donor consent form, the donation will not move forward.
This step highlights the importance of notifying close family members of your wishes. If they are unaware that you want to be an organ donor, they may not give authorization. Discuss your end-of-life plans and share why you want to donate your organs to ensure your family members understand your plans.
5. Medical maintenance of the donor
To keep the organs healthy and living, the donor is medically maintained with fluids, medications, and other support. It’s critical to understand that the person is not alive at this time. Medications and other medical interventions are simply keeping the organs functioning and healthy until it is time for them to be recovered for donation.
6. Organs matched to recipients
People in need of organ donation are listed on a national registry. Information about them is also available on the registry including the organ needed, blood type, body type, urgency, and time on the waiting list. When an organ becomes available, the national registry is examined for potential recipients.
Recipient and donor information is critical when matching organs to potential donors. Heart, lung, and liver transplants require a similar body size between donor and recipient as well as a matching blood type. For pancreas and kidney transplants, the donor and recipient need a close genetic tissue type.
Matches are first sought in the immediate vicinity of the donor, then regionally, and finally, on a national basis if no matches are found in a nearer location.
7. Recipients located
When potential recipients are found, careful coordination occurs between the recipient’s transplant team and the registry coordinator. The transplant surgeon is first called and told about the available organ. If, for any reason, the surgeon rejects the organ on behalf of the patient, the transplant team for the next person on the waiting list will be called. Once the transplant surgeon accepts the organ on behalf of the patient, the donation can proceed.
This process occurs for every organ that is to be donated.
8. Organs recovered for donation
Once recipients have been found for all the organs, the donor is taken into surgery. A surgical team that had no responsibility for the donor before their death is responsible for recovering the organs in a safe way while also respecting the body of the donor.
9. Recipients receive transplants
While the organs are being recovered, recipients are notified by their transplant team that an organ match has been found. They are then immediately taken into pre-operation and prepared for surgery. As soon as the organ arrives at the hospital, they are taken into surgery for the transplant.
10. Donors buried or cremated
After the organ recovery surgery takes place, the donor is then transported to the funeral home for their burial or cremation per their and their family’s wishes. Organ donors can still have regular, traditional funerals with open casket viewings if desired. Organ recovery takes place in a surgically precise, dignified manner that allows for the ability of all desired funeral preferences.
Frequently Asked Questions: Organ Donation Process
There are many misconceptions when it comes to the organ donation process. Here are a few questions you may be wondering about.
Who qualifies to be an organ donor?
Practically anyone can be an organ donor regardless of age, ethnicity, or, in many cases, even health. There are only a couple of things that would disqualify you from being a donor - active cancer or a systemic infection. In addition to being an anatomical donor, you can also consider donating your body to science.
Do medical professionals treat organ donors differently?
A significant myth when it comes to organ donation is that medical professionals won’t work as hard to save the life of someone who is a registered organ donor. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
All medical professionals, whether they’re EMTs arriving at the scene of an accident or doctors in a hospital, will do everything in their power to save a person’s life. Only after every medical intervention has been tried and there is nothing more that can be done is a person declared dead.
How long does organ donation surgery take?
The surgery to recover a donor’s organs is relatively fast - just a matter of hours. The organ donation process tends to take several hours prior to the surgery, however.
The time before surgery accounts for registry searches, finding recipient matches, coordinating with transplant surgical teams, and receiving the green light for organ donations to occur. Once the surgery takes place, organs can be recovered in several hours.
How long after death can you donate organs?
This depends on the way death occurs. For those who are in a hospital and are declared brain dead, machines and medications may be used for several hours to keep the person’s body functioning. This is to ensure the organs stay active and healthy. Organ donors are typically found within hours of a donor’s death, so the need to keep the organs functioning only occurs until organ recovery surgery can take place.
If someone dies due to cardiac arrest, there are only a matter of minutes before the organs inside no longer become usable since the flow of blood ceases when the heart stops. The bones, skin, corneas, and heart valves can still be donated within 24 hours.
Can I still have a funeral for my loved one after organ donation?
One of the biggest myths about organ donation is in regards to what happens after organ donation takes place. Organ recovery surgery is a dignified medical procedure, after which the incisions are sewn up and the body is prepared for burial or cremation.
If a family wants to have an open-casket funeral or a viewing, they can still do so. When coordinating end-of-life plans with the funeral home, the director can supply information on how best to hold an open-casket funeral. Your loved one will look like themselves and be as you remembered them while they were living.
The Gift of Life
Just one person’s organ donation can save up to eight lives and impact countless others. If you want the chance to change someone’s world, consider becoming a donor yourself. Talk with your loved ones about this decision of a lifetime.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
- “Organ Donation Step by Step.” One Legacy, onelegacy.org/newsroom/presskit/organ_stepbystep.html
- “Organ Donation Statistics.” Statistics and Stories, Health Resources and Services Administration, September 2020, organdonor.gov/statistics-stories/statistics.html
- “How Organ Donation Works.” Organ Donor, Health Resources and Services Administration, September 2020, organdonor.gov/about/process.html
- “How We Match Organs.” United Network for Organ Sharing, unos.org/transplant/how-we-match-organs/
- “Can You Have an Open Casket After Organ Donation?” Donor Alliance, 22 September 2020, donoralliance.org/newsroom/donation-essentials/can-you-have-an-open-casket-after-organ-donation/