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This article was written by Rebekah Apple.
Right now, more than 107,000 Americans wait for a life-saving organ transplant. The list grows with another name every 11 minutes, and every day, 18 people on that list die.
One organ donor can save eight people’s lives and a tissue donor can help up to 50 others. The fact remains, however, that there simply aren’t enough organs to save everyone on the waiting list.
Signing up to become a donor is easy — most Americans can designate themselves as donors when they get their drivers license and, in many states, that designation transfers their information to a state database. In the event of their death, organ donation professionals access that database, which begins the process of saving lives.
Making the decision to become a donor is different; it requires a clear understanding of the way donation works — which can prove difficult, given various persistent myths about donation.
Organ donation and transplantation, like any other health-based decision, should be made based on facts, not fears. So here’s the truth:
Organs which can be donated include the heart, lungs, liver, small intestine, pancreas and kidneys. Numerous tissues can be donated, including corneas, bone, skin, tendons, ligaments, heart valves, veins, arteries and more.
All major religions in the United States support organ donation. Many consider it the highest form of charity and — even if there is a religious rule or law about what should be done with someone’s body after they die — that rule becomes secondary if the possibility of saving someone else’s life exists.
It is possible to have an open casket funeral after organ and tissue donation. For example, donated skin is recovered from the back of the body. Organ recovery occurs like any other surgery, in a hospital’s operating room.
There is no cost to the family if their loved one becomes an organ and tissue donor.
Organ donation occurs as a result of a head trauma — such as a car accident or stroke. An individual who has been brought to the hospital after such injury must be declared brain dead in order for donation professionals to proceed with the donation process.
Brain death is not the same thing as a coma or a persistent vegetative state (PVS). A coma is a state of ongoing unconsciousness and not necessarily permanent. PVS results in the destruction of the higher functioning portions of the brain and is permanent. In both cases, the individual is still very much alive. Brain death, however, is the complete cessation of all brain function; when the brain swells to the point where it receives no blood or oxygen supply, the person will die.
The physicians who determine brain death are not the same physicians responsible for the organ donation process. Hospital staff is obligated to do one thing: exhaust every measure necessary to save someone’s life. Donation becomes a possibility when each measure fails.
Upon arriving in the emergency room with a serious head trauma, patients are typically placed on circulatory support. This is because the brain — responsible for telling the body what to do — has suffered an injury, and supportive machines will keep the rest of the body functioning while the brain recovers. But that support can’t repair brain damage. If the brain dies while the patient is on support, the machines can continue functioning for a short time; therefore, the organs will continue receiving blood and oxygen. Those organs can then be donated to save the lives of others.
Organ donors can also become tissue donors, but becoming a tissue donor does not require brain death. At the time of tissue transplantation, there are actually no living cells in the donated tissue.
Brain death doesn’t occur that often. In fact, less than 1% of deaths in the United States are brain deaths . And not every person who suffers such a fate designated themselves as organ donors.
Those waiting for life-saving transplants can’t be compared to people with other illnesses. End-stage organ failure isn’t worse or better than cancer or heart disease, but it’s different because the cure lies in selflessness. People on the waiting list depend on the generosity of others in order to survive.
If you’ve already designated yourself as a donor, you may wonder what else you can do to help save lives. The answer is simple: tell others. Tell your family and friends what you’ve decided and encourage them to learn more, as well. Additional information is available — and the opportunity to sign up as a donor — at www.donatelifeamerica.net.
About the author: Rebekah Apple is the Public Affairs Coordinator at the LifeLink Foundation, a non-profit community service organization dedicated to the recovery of life-saving and life-enhancing organs and tissue for transplantation therapy. Her goal is to share the truth about the donation process and allow everyone the opportunity to make an informed decision.
- Understanding Death Before Donation. The Gif of a Lifetime. Accessed 2010 Aug 25.