How to Donate Your Organs After Death

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Becoming an organ donor after your death is a simple, generous act that can save the life of one (or more!) of the thousands of people currently on the transplant list. But despite the fact that 95 percent of American adults support the practice, only 54 percent are registered donors.

To many, the organ donation process still invokes a lot of questions and anxieties. Am I too old to be a donor? If doctors know that I’m willing to give my organs away, will they stop trying to save my life if I end up in the hospital? Can I still donate if I have an illness? (The answers: no, no, and probably.)

If you’ve been hesitant to sign up to donate, or are simply curious about the process, here’s what you need to know.

Who can be an organ donor?

Anyone can sign up to be a donor regardless of race, health, or age. The oldest donor in the US was 93 and pediatric donations (which include infants, children, and teens) can be authorized by parents or legal guardians.

How can I become an organ donor?

If you’re interested in becoming an organ donor, you’ll need to sign up with your state’s registry. The process is simple and can be completed in just a few minutes, either online or in person at the local DMV. Most states will let you choose the organs and tissues you’ll want to donate, and you also have the ability to change your mind at any time. Find your state’s registry here:

Having your name in state registry at the time of your death is legally binding, meaning the choice can’t be overruled by family or friends. It’s therefore important to discuss your decision with loved ones, so that it doesn’t come as a surprise. The only exception to that rule is for people who are under 18—even if they are in the registry, their parents or legal guardians can choose not to donate their organs when they die.

If you’re not in the registry when you die, your family will be asked if your organs can be passed on and it’s up to them to decide.

What organs can be donated?

One person can save up to eight lives by donating major organs including the heart, liver, two lungs, two kidneys, intestines, and pancreas. You can also give tissues such as tendons, skin, heart valves, and corneas. But signing up to be a donor doesn’t guarantee that your organs will be transplanted. After death, doctors will still have to complete a medical evaluation to see which organs, if any, are healthy enough to be passed on to another person.

Can I still donate if I have an illness?

Sometimes accidents or conditions like an active cancer or a systemic infection make donation impossible, but having an illness doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re automatically ruled out. If one or even a few organs are impacted, it’s possible that others can still be donated—but that’s up to the medical team to decide.

How does the organ donation process work?

One of the most common fears and misconceptions about organ donation is that doctors won’t try to save the life of someone who is a donor. It’s a scary thought, but the truth is that donation isn’t discussed until after all life-saving methods have been exhausted, and usually not until after the patient is declared brain dead. Unlike a coma, brain death is considered to be irreversible and means that the person won’t recover. (It’s also worth knowing that the hospital team making decisions about your health care is separate from the people who coordinate the transplant process.)

Once a person is declared brain dead, the hospital notifies a representative from the nearest Organ Procurement Organization (OPO), who will search state registries to see if the deceased is a donor. If they are, or if the next-of-kin approves the donation, doctors perform a medical evaluation to see if any organs can be transplanted. If so, the OPO representative reaches out to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, and a liaison inputs information such as blood type and zip code and searches for a match in the national database of all people waiting for a transplant.

Who will get the organs depends on a number of factors, including the recipient’s blood type, body size, and how long they have been waiting. Location can also play a big role: Organs like the kidneys can survive nearly two days outside the body, but others like the heart can only make it up to six hours, so the organ may go to the person who is closest, not necessarily one who has been waiting longer.

After the organs are removed from the donor’s body, they are kept on artificial support and transported to the recipients as quickly as possible. The donor’s family will never be charged for donation. Afterward, many donors are still able to have an open-casket funeral.

You can learn more about organ donation at organdonor.gov.

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