Myths/FAQs & Helpful Facts

Federal Laws

Since the 1960s, extensive federal and state laws have been passed to regulate organ and tissue donation and transplantation. These regulations are designed to protect both donors and recipients and to assure the fair distribution of the limited supply of available organs.


The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of 1968 (UAGA)

• Establishes that anyone may become a donor
• Revised in 1987 to define the rights and responsibilities of donors and recipients
• Revised again in 2009 to incorporate first person authorization (registries)

 
The National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA)

• Makes it illegal to buy or sell human organs or tissues intended for transplantation
• Establishes a national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to determine how organs should be allocated


The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 (OBRA)

• Established hospital procedures that require designated personnel to approach family members about donation at the time of a patient's death.
• Since most states now have organ donor registries, the only way to be sure that your decision to donate will be honored, is to register that decision on your state's organ donor registry.

 
Background

• Although more than 2 million Americans die every year, fewer than 20,000 are potential organ donors. Of that number, about 8,000 actually become organ donors. When polled, the vast majority of Americans said they favor organ and tissue donation, but half of those surveyed said they would not consent to donate the organs of their family members if they had not previously discussed donation with them, or didn't know of their wish to donate.
• The second reason for the imbalance between deaths and donors is that a donor must die in a hospital where he/she can be placed on a respirator. Without a respirator to act as a mechanical heart to keep blood flowing, the organs will begin to deteriorate and be unsuitable for transplantation.
• Even from among that small number of 15,000 to 20,000 potential donors, most will not become donors. About half of the families asked to donate will say "no". Others will be determined to be medically unsuitable. Tragically, the families of some will simply not be asked.
• Fortunately, more than 8,000 patients do become deceased organ donors annually and the word is spreading about organ donor registries. However, the waiting list grows longer every day.
• Uncertainty about the donation process is one common reason people don't decide to become donors.
• If you have further questions, counselors at local transplant hospitals and organ procurement organizations (OPOs) can provide additional information.

 
The Process

1st - A donor death must be established as brain death or circulatory death, either way, the patient must have died on a respirator. Brain death has occurred when the brain has permanently stopped working, as determined by several medical professionals. Circulatory death is the irreversible loss of function of the heart and lungs.
2nd - Hospital personnel contact their local organ procurement organization (OPO), which then looks up the patient on the state registry, and dispatches a representative to evaluate the patient as a donation candidate. If the patient is a viable donor, the representative visits with the family. If the patient is registered, then the donation process will occur. If the patient is not registered, then he OPO must obtain family authorization. If the family wants to donate, the OPO counselor stays to coordinate all aspects of the donation, including obtaining a medical and social history of the patient from the family.
3rd - The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) uses an impartial system to allocate donor organs to transplant candidates. The OPO coordinator maintains the donor's organs in the ICU while the matching process takes place. Matching is done through the UNOS computer. The UNOS computer searches for candidates who match the donor's physical size and blood group. It also considers candidates' medical status and length of time on the waiting list. Because one donor can provide organs for several recipients, the computer provides a ranked list of potential recipients for each donor organ. Beginning with the first name on each list, the procurement coordinator contacts the patients' physicians and offers the organs for transplantation.
4th - When the surgical teams arrive, the donor is taken to the operating room. After surgery, the funeral home prepares the body according to the family's wishes.
5th - The OPO writes letters of condolence and thanks to the donor family, and offers the option of participating in an aftercare program. These letters provide the family and health care professionals with information about the recipients, but do not reveal identities or break confidentiality.
6th - It is possible for the recipients to correspond with the donor family anonymously at first and later, if both sides agree, to learn their identity. Many lasting friendships have developed between recipients and donor families.

 
FAQs

If I needed a vital organ to live, would I be able to get one?

  • Maybe. Many people who need transplants of organs and tissues cannot get them because of a shortage of donations. Every 10 minutes a new name is added to the national waiting list for organ transplants. While about 30,000 people do get the transplants they need each year, an average of 18 Americans die each day before the organs they need become available.

How are organs and tissues for transplantation obtained?

  • Organs and tissues are donated by individuals at the time death and by living donors who are often relatives or friends of the recipient.

Who can become an organ and tissue donor?

  • Anyone from babies to the elderly may be eligable to donate. People who have a history of IV drug use, are HIV positive, or have a few other medical conditions might be ruled “medically unsuitable”, but most people have the potential to be organ and/or tissue donors.

Whose Responsibility is that Decision?

  • Donation of organs and tissues is a personal decision. It is also a social responsibility to make this decision, register it, and share it with your family members so that your wishes can be honored at the time of your death.

How do I designate my wish to be an organ and tissue donor?

  • You can officially authorize your decision to donate by registering at www.donatelifetexas.org, at a DPS office or through the DMV.

How are donated organs distributed?

  • The names of all those waiting for transplants from deceased donors are placed on a waiting list until suitably matched organs become available. The matches are made according to factors that include blood and tissue types, medical need, length of time on the waiting list as well as the size and weight of the donor and recipients. For example, a 25lb. child could not use the heart of a 200lb. man (even if all the other factors matched). When a match is found, the organs are then preserved and quickly transported to the center where the transplant is scheduled.

What is the system for giving the option of organ and tissue donation to the families of patients who have died?

  • Federal law requires hospitals to report all deaths to the local organ procurement organization (OPO) whose personnel approach the family to consider donating their loved one’s organs and tissues. If you have not registered your decision to donate, your family must sign an authorization form before the donation can take place.

Is there a difference between being in a coma and being brain dead?

  • Yes. When someone is in a coma, he or she still has brain activity and is alive. Someone who is brain dead no longer has brain activity and is dead. His/her organs and tissues can be maintained only through mechanical intervention such as a respirator. This intervention is not “life support.”

Is organ donation expensive for the donor?

  • No. There is no cost associated with donating organs and tissues after death. The costs of organ and tissue recovery are assumed by the agencies involved and passed onto the recipient and his/her insurance company. Living donors should check with their insurance to ensure that no costs will arise from the donation process. Most insurance companies (including Medicaid and Medicare) will cover a living donor’s expenses. It is also important to note that no payments are given to the donor or the family because tissue and/or organ donation is considered a gift.

As long as I sign and carry my donor card, will I be a donor?

  • No. Donor cards are obsolete and no longer legal. You can officially authorize your decision to donate by registering at www.donatelifetexas.org, at a DPS office, or through the DMV. If you do not register, you leave this important decision to family members who may not be able to make this choice at an already difficult time.

Is it easier for family members if they wait until a loved one actually dies before they consider organ donation?

  • Although many people do not like to talk about death, it is much easier to consider donation while everyone is well and can discuss the issue calmly together. On the other hand, when a loved one dies without having told the family about his/her decision, it is difficult for members to know what the deceased would have wanted them to do about donation. In addition, because they are grieving, these decisions are especially difficult. Registering your decision to be a donor is the best way to make sure your choice is honored.

Can I be an organ and tissue donor and also donate my body to medical science?

  • Yes. After the organ recovery process has taken place, your body can still be donated to medical science. If you wish to donate your entire body to a medical school or research facility, you should contact the facility of your choice to learn about its requirements and to make the necessary arrangements.

Can I donate organs and tissues before death?

  • Yes. Blood donors are always needed. Donors can begin as early as age 17 and give as frequently as every 8 weeks. Healthy bone marrow is another lifesaver. Potential donors can join a national Bone Marrow Registry by contacting the local blood bank or phoning 1-800-MARROW2 for registration information. A third possibility, but one with far greater health risk to the donor, is kidney, partial liver, or partial lung donation. An individual who is close to someone who needs a kidney, lung, or liver transplant and would like to be considered as a donor should contact that person’s transplant center to explore donation possibilities.

Where can I get more information about organ and tissue donation and transplantation?

  • For more information and additional resources, please visit the UNOS Website which provides a daily update of the national waiting list. United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) in Richmond, VA maintains the national registry of patients waiting for organ transplants. There are more than 70,000 Americans on that computerized list (as of 02/2013). You can also browse our Additional Resources Page to find great research sources.
 
Myths

"I am too old to become an organ donor." - MYTH

  • THE TRUTH - Age is not a factor. Organ and tissue donors may range in age from babies to senior citizens.

"Organ donation is against my religion." - MYTH

  • THE TRUTH - Most major religious organizations support organ and tissue donation or transplantation. In fact, many religious organizations view donation as among the highest of humanitarian ideals. For information on how specific religions view organ donation, visit LifeCenter Northwest's Religion and Donation Page.

"The rich and famous will get preferential treatment if they need a transplant." - MYTH

  • THE TRUTH - Celebrities and well-connected people cannot receive preferential treatment. Ethnicity, gender, religion, and financial status are not part of the matching system. Organs are allocated based only on factors that include: blood and tissue types, medical need, length of time on the waiting list, and the size and weight of the donors and recipients.

"My body will be disfigured." - MYTH

  • THE TRUTH - The recovery of organs and tissues is a sterile surgical procedure. The body is treated with the utmost respect. In fact, an open casket funeral is still a possibility for donors who choose to donate all possible organs and tissues.

"Organ removal will cause great delays in funeral arrangements." - MYTH

  • THE TRUTH - The removal of organs and tissues is normally performed quickly in order to minimize any delay in funeral arrangements.

"The doctors will let my loved one die to obtain organs." - MYTH

  • THE TRUTH - In order for organs to be recovered, the patient must be declared brain-dead or circulatory dead. Death is pronounced only after several tests have been performed and repeated with the same results. The doctors who are involved in saving lives are separate from the ones involved in organ and tissue recovery.

“My history of medical illness means my organs or tissues are unfit for donation.” – MYTH

  • THE TRUTH - At the time of death, the appropriate medical professionals will review your medical and social histories to determine whether or not you can be a donor. With the recent advances in transplantation, more people than ever can be donors.

“There is real danger of being heavily drugged, then waking to find you have had one kidney (or both) removed for a black market transplant.” – MYTH

  • THE TRUTH - This tale has been widely circulated over the Internet. There is absolutely no evidence of such activity ever occurring in the U.S. While the tale may sound credible, it has no basis in the reality of organ transplantation. Many people who hear the myth probably dismiss it, but it is possible that some believe it and decide against organ donation out of needless fear.

How well do you know your donation facts? Take this knowledge quiz from the University of Michigan Transplant Center and find out!