Each year, thousands of Americans receive organ and tissue transplants as a result of disease, infection, accidents or genetic deformity. Thousands more wait on the organ transplant list for a suitable donor match. For some transplant candidates, waiting is a race against time – a matter of life and death.
Successful transplant surgery is only part of the story. The gift of life or the gift of replacement tissue, eyes, skin, and bones could not be possible without an organ donor. What’s on the horizon for organ donation and transplant surgery? How can you sign up to be an organ donor? What parts of the body can you even donate?
America Desperately Needs Organ Donors
The drastic shortage of donors is forcing scientists to look elsewhere, such as using other animals like pigs for organ and tissue transplants, a procedure scientifically known as Xenotransplantation. The idea of cloning humans for body parts sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it’s that same out of the box scientific thinking and experimentation that helped discover stem cells.
Which human body parts can be donated for transplant? Is there an age limit, and can an elderly person sign up to become an organ donor? How does a person even sign up to be an organ donor?
Which Parts of the Body Can Organ Donors Donate?
Kidney and liver donations are the most high demand organ donations. A single kidney can be donated from a live donor, and so can a part of the liver because it regenerates. Bone marrow can be donated and is often used to try to save cancer patients. Bones can even be donated and transplanted. Eyes, muscles, skin, intestines and blood can be donated. There is no shortage of organs that can be donated!
It’s not just single organs that can be donated and transplanted, but combination transplants are possible as well. A heart/lung transplant is one such example of a combination transplant. Refer to the website OrganDonor.gov and the page titled, “What Can Be Donated?” to see all the organ donation possibilities.
New York Times contributing writer, Lawrence K. Altman, has shared information on how far transplant surgery has evolved over time in his article :”The Ultimate Gift: 50 Years of Organ Transplants.” Altman wrote, “Since 1982, at least 416,457 people in the United States have received new kidneys, hearts, livers, lungs, pancreases and intestines to extend their lives and relieve their discomfort, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing which tracks transplants in this country.”
Know the Facts About Organ Donation
Make sure all doctors concerned have your organ donor information. Hospital medical staff follow a rigid protocol for harvesting organs, so it’s absolutely imperative that your intent is made clear well beforehand.
Here are several common myths about organ donation (highlighted in Italics) followed by the actual facts:
• Myth: A person with significant health problems can’t be an organ/tissue donor. Fact: Only a doctor can decide what organs or parts of the body are healthy enough to use after death. This is true in spite of any ailments the person may have had.
• Myth: An elderly person is too old to be a donor. Fact: There is no cut-off age for donating organs. In fact, people in their 70s and 80s have made successful donations before.
• Myth: The donor’s family pays for the harvesting surgery. Fact: Charges come from efforts to keep the patient (donor) alive. After the person is pronounced dead, there is no charge for surgically removing the donated organs/tissue.
• Myth: The person who doesn’t want to donate “everything” has no choice in the matter. Fact: Donors can specify on their donor card what they do not want to donate, and it will not be harvested.
To read more facts about organ donation, visit the MayoClinic website. The Consumer Health page on the site features an article titled, “Organ Donation: Don’t Let These Myths Confuse You.”
In the same article, you can scroll to the bottom to read the benefits of organ donation. An example from the article: “By donating your organs after you die, you can save or improve as many as 50 lives. And many families say that knowing their loved one helped save other lives helped them cope with their loss.”
How and Where Does a Person Sign Up to Be An Organ Donor?
Organ and tissue transplantation has progressed beyond scientific expectation, but the lack of donors means too many people die waiting for a donor. If you’d like to become a donor, it only takes a few minutes to register.
Here are three suggested places to sign up for organ donation:
1- The website OrganDonor.gov has a page titled, “Sign Up to be an Organ Donor” where a person interested can refer to his state registry for instructions.
2- The Mohan Foundation site also offers the choice of printing and signing an organ donor card. (You still need to join a state registry or designate your decision on your driver’s license.)
3- Driver’s license applicants and renewal applicants can choose to become a donor and have it designated on the license.
4- The website Donate Life America features access to individual state laws on organ donation and provides a way to sign up.
Whether you want to be an organ donor or not, it’s important that you make your decision known to others. Tell family members, a caregiver, or a close friend. Speaking up now might save someone’s life later. Carry your organ donor card when you’re away from home because every second counts if organs are to be safely transplanted. Document your request in your living will and other advance directives. These legal documents can speak for you in the event of accident or illness.
Recent advancements in transplant techniques and drug research have made hand transplants and face transplants a promising reality, though there is still much work to be done in those areas. The concept of whole limb transplants is also on the horizon.
Please note that we are not attempting to convince you to be a donor. We understand that this is a personal decision, and one that is frowned upon by some religions. However, it’s important that you make an informed decision based on the facts.