At this moment, more than 113,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for an organ. One more person is added to the national waiting list every 10 minutes.
Organ donors are always in short supply. There are far more people in need of a transplant than there are people willing to donate an organ.
Most of the organs that are available come from deceased donors. When you fill out an organ donor card with your driver's license, you're agreeing to donate all or some of your organs if you die.
A smaller number of organs come from healthy people. More than 6,000 transplants from living donors are performed each year.
You might have wondered about donating an organ -- either to a friend or relative who needs an organ right now, or by filling out an organ donor card. Before you decide to become an organ donor, here is some important information you need to consider.
Organ Donation: The Facts
Here are a few questions you might be asking if you're considering organ donation:
Who can donate an organ?
Just about anyone, at any age, can become an organ donor. Anyone younger than age18 needs to have the consent of a parent or guardian.
For organ donation after death, a medical assessment will be done to determine what organs can be donated. Certain conditions, such as having HIV, actively spreading cancer, or severe infection would exclude organ donation.
Let your transplant team know about any health conditions you have at the beginning of the process. Then they can decide whether you're a good candidate.
Do my blood and tissue type have to match the recipient's?
It's easier to transplant an organ if the donor and recipient are a good match. The transplant team will give you a series of tests to determine whether your blood and tissue types are compatible with the recipient's.
Some medical centers can transplant an organ even if the donor's and recipient's blood and tissue types don't match. In that case, the recipient will receive special treatments to prevent their body from rejecting the donor organ.
How can I become an organ donor?
To donate your organs after death, you can either register with your state's donor registry (visit OrganDonor.gov), or fill out an organ donor card when you get or renew your driver's license.
To become a living donor, you can either work directly with your family member or friend's transplant team, or contact a transplant center in your area to find out who's in need of an organ.
With kidney transplants, it’s sometimes possible to do a “paired” kidney exchange. For instance, if someone wants to donate a kidney to a loved one but isn’t a match, they may be able to donate their kidney to someone else, and in turn their loved one gets a kidney that is a good match from another donor.
If I donate an organ, will I have health problems in the future?
Not necessarily. There are some organs you can give up all or part of without having long-term health issues. You can donate a whole kidney, or part of the pancreas, intestine, liver, or lung. Your body will compensate for the missing organ or organ part. As for kidneys, there is some data showing that kidney donors may be slightly more likely, over the long term, to develop high blood pressure, preeclampsia, and chronic kidney disease. But the data on that is limited and mixed. If donating an organ would put your health at risk in the short term or long term, then you would not be able to donate.
Will I be paid for donating an organ?
No. It's illegal to pay someone for an organ. The transplant program, recipient's insurance, or recipient should cover your expenses from tests and hospital costs related to a living organ donation. The transplant program can go over what coverage is available for additional medical services. Some or all of your travel costs may also be covered.
Will organ donation after death mean I can't have an open-casket funeral?
No. The surgical cuts used for organ donation will all be closed.
Will my organ donation after death incur any costs to my family?
No. The costs of the tests and surgery related to the donation will be covered by the recipient -- most often by the recipient's insurance. Your medical care and funeral costs are paid for by your family.
Does signing a donor card have an impact on the quality of medical care I get at a hospital?
No. When you are in a life-threatening situation,
the medical team that is treating you is separate from the transplant team. Every effort to save your life will be made before an organ donation is considered.
Pros and Cons of Organ Donation
When you're considering becoming a living organ donor, think very carefully about these pros and cons:
Pros. Probably the greatest benefit of organ donation is knowing that you're saving a life. That life might be your partner, child, parent, brother or sister, a close friend, or even a stranger.
Cons. Organ donation is major surgery. All surgery comes with risks such as bleeding, infection, blood clots, allergic reactions, or damage to nearby organs and tissues.
Although you will have anesthesia during the surgery as a living donor, you can have pain while you recover. Pain and discomfort will vary depending on the type of surgery. And you may have visible, lasting scars from surgery.
It will take some time for your body to recover from surgery. You might have to miss work until you're fully healed.
Should You Become an Organ Donor? Making the Decision
As you decide whether to donate an organ as a living donor, weigh the benefits and risks very seriously.
Get as much information as you can before making a decision. The transplant center should fully explain the organ donation process to you. You should also be assigned an independent donor advocate who will make sure you know your medical rights.
Make sure you ask a lot of questions throughout this process. It's important for you to fully understand the surgery and how becoming an organ donor might affect your future health.
Finally, remember that this is your decision -- yours alone. Don't let anyone sway that decision. Even if a friend or loved one is very sick, you have to consider how donating an organ might affect your own life. Remember that even though the donation process has started, you have the right to stop it at any time if you change your mind.