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How Does Organ Donation Work?

Organ donation is the process of giving an organ or tissue to another person who is in need of an organ transplant. Organ donation saves lives and is a selfless act that helps those in need. Here’s what to know when it comes to organ donation.

What is organ donation?

Organ donation is when a person allows an organ of theirs to be removed legally, either by consent while the person is alive or after death, for the purpose of transplantation. Transplantation is an operation where the donated organ is transplanted into another person.

There are two types of organ donors: deceased and living. Deceased organ donors are people who have died and whose organs are suitable for transplantation. Living organ donors are people who donate an organ while they are still alive.

Which organs can be transplanted?

Organs and tissues that can be donated by a deceased donor include:

  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Pancreas
  • Heart
  • Lung
  • Intestine
  • Corneas
  • Middle ear
  • Skin
  • Bone
  • Bone marrow
  • Heart valves
  • Connective tissue
  • Other structures including skin, the uterus, nerves, blood vessels, and muscles

How long after death can you donate organs?

In general, organs must be removed within a few hours of the person's death for them to be suitable for transplantation. This is because once blood flow has stopped, organs quickly begin to deteriorate. Here are some general timeframes for some of the main organs:

  • Lungs must be transplanted within 4-6 hours
  • The heart must be transplanted within 4-6 hours
  • The liver must be transplanted within 8-12 hours
  • The kidneys must be transplanted within 24-36 hours
  • Other organs and tissue can be stored and do not need to be transplanted immediately. These organs and tissues include the cornea, skin, bones, and heart valves.

Why is organ donation important

Organ donation saves lives. Organs and tissues can be transplanted from a deceased donor to a living recipient, or they can be used for research and education purposes.

There are many people who need organ transplants. In the United States, there are more than 100,000 people waiting for an organ transplant.

Unfortunately, there are not enough organs available for all the people who need them. Each year, more than 6,000 people die while waiting for an organ transplant and Cleveland Clinic estimates 21 people die every day while waiting for an organ transplant. Without this generous gift given by deceased individuals (and living ones), many people would not be able to continue living.

What are the pros and cons of organ donation?

Two big pros of organ donation are that it can save lives and improve the quality of life for recipients. Organ donation is a selfless act that can bring both life and joy to the recipient and their family. One of the cons is that it may affect certain family belief systems or may feel inappropriate to surviving family members who do not want their loved one's body to be marked or touched in any way. If you're considering organ donation, notify your family of your decisions so that it's not a shock when the time comes.

What is the difference between a tissue donor vs organ donor?

Being an organ donor and tissue donor are essentially one in the same -- tissue donors simply donate different parts of their body. Additionally, tissue can be stored for an extended period of time, unlike organs. Tissues that are donated can be used in many different cases, including bone replacement, burn cases, ligament repair, and other scenarios.

What happens to remains after organ donation?

After organ donation, the body is treated with respect and handled in a dignified manner. Surgeons will close any incisions and care for the body in a way that lets families have an open casket funeral if they wanted one. After the organ and tissue recovery process, the donor’s body is then released to the family in around 24-36 hours.

Do organ donors feel pain?

No, organ donors do not feel pain. All major organs and tissues can be removed while the donor is on life support and under anesthesia, so they will not feel any pain during the donation process, if they are donating organs while still alive. For donors who are donating intentionally and still alive afterwards (as in, they decide to donate a single organ), there is pain management that should be talked about with a doctor after the procedure.

What is the organ donation and transplant process?

Organ donation after death is a complex process that involves multiple organizations and steps. Here's a rough outline of how organ donation after death works:

  1. Organ donation requires that the organs have both blood and oxygen flowing through them up until the transplant process starts. This typically requires that the individual pass away under specific circumstances (such as a fatal brain injury or lack of oxygen to the brain).
  2. After doctors have exhausted all efforts attempting to save the donor's life, tests are performed to confirm that there is no brain or brainstem activity and the donor is declared dead.
  3. Organ donation registries are then searched to see if the donor has registered for organ donation. If they haven't listed themselves in the organ donation registry, doctors will then attempt to contact next of kin or authorized representatives to see if organ donation is a possibility. After the family authorizes donation (or the individual was listed in the organ donation registry), doctors search through medical history to identify any issues.
  4. At this point, doctors and other professionals in the transplantation and donation sectors determine which organs are viable for transplant and who can receive these organs.

What is the difference between organ donation and donating a body to science?

Organ donation is the process of donating organs after death for the purpose of transplantation. This can only happen with organs that have blood and oxygen flowing to them and typically can only occur a few hours after death. Donating a body to science, on the other hand, is the process of donating an entire body for research purposes and medical purposes. Bodies that are donated to science are typically used for medical or anatomical research and education. After use, the bodies are cremated and the cremains are returned to the family.

Organ donation is a selfless act that can save lives. By donating organs, individuals are able to give the gift of life to others in need. The transplant process is long and complex, but it ultimately saves lives. If you are interested in becoming an organ donor or are looking for in-depth organ donation information, you can get more information through the following organizations:

If you're considering end-of-life plans and want to keep your family informed, use Ever Loved's free checklist to keep all your important information in one place. This list can be shared with family members and can help your family understand your wishes.

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Last updated August 25, 2022
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