All You Need To Know About Being An Organ Donor

Organ donation is the process of donating certain organs to another person upon your death.

Reasons for being an organ donor

Many people view organ donation as a final altruistic act of helping others, and most religions support the act of organ donation. To learn about your religion's views on organ donation, see our article Religious Funeral Traditions.

How to become an organ donor

Every state has its own donor registry. Once you register as a donor in your state, you are officially an organ donor. The state registry will send you a letter confirming that you are an organ donor. If you've registered through your state's Department of Motor Vehicles, you may get a sticker or some other sign on your driver's license identifying you as an organ donor. In either case you will be in your state's donor registry. You do not need to have the confirmation letter or a sticker on your driver's license for organ donation to take place. You may want to tell your family, your health care power of attorney, and your doctor that you are a registered organ donor, so that they can advocate for and support your wish to donate your organs if something should happen to you. You may also wish to include your organ donor status in your advance directive.

To register as an organ donor in your state, use our resource State-by-State Organ Donation Registries.

How organ donation works

If you should get sick or if you should have a fatal accident and you are admitted to the hospital, you, your family, or your health care power of attorney will tell the hospital team treating you that you are a registered organ donor. This can help the hospital team prepare for organ donation. Being an organ donor does not reduce the amount or quality of care you will receive.

Organ donation in the United States is regulated by the non-profit Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), which is administered by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) under contract to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Determining death or brain death

The hospital staff will care for you until your death, which in some cases may be brain death. Brain death is a total lack of activity in the brain, which is accompanied by an inability to breathe on one's own. Brain death is not a coma, but is in fact death. In order to determine brain death, a neurologist will perform a series of tests (often more than once) to see if there is any brain activity. If there is no brain activity, the death will be confirmed by the neurologist. The body will be kept on life-support to maintain the organs until the organs are removed. 

Coordinating organ donation and receipt

The hospital will contact the local organ procurement organization (OPO). Using the state's donor registry, the local OPO will confirm that the patient is in fact a registered organ donor. An OPO representative will come to the hospital and meet with the family to go over the donation procedures and obtain personal information about the donor from the donor's family. This information usually includes a complete medical history as well as personal information.

The OPO will coordinate with the OPTN to begin the process of finding a recipient. Recipients are chosen from UNOS's database of people waiting for donations, and paired with the donor based on a number of characteristics, such as blood type, tissue type, height and weight; the length of time the patient has been waiting for an organ; and the geographic distance between the donor and the potential recipient. At this time, the OPO representative will begin to arrange for the surgical removal and transport of donated organs.

What organs can be donated?

The organs that can currently be donated include:

  • Kidneys
  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Intestines

In addition, there are many different types of tissue that can be donated, such as:

  • Cornea
  • Skin
  • Heart valves
  • Bone and cartilage
  • Veins
  • Tendons and ligaments

How organ donation affects funeral arrangements

Being an organ donor will not effect any funeral arrangements you'd like. Organ donors can have open-casket or closed-casket services and can be buried or cremated.

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