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13 Organ Donation Questions: Busting Myths, Spreading Facts


Some leave a legacy. Others leave many.

Signing that organ-donation pledge may mean you help dozens of people. But fear of donation is just as real for some people as fear of death. Here are your vital questions, answered once and for all.

by Stella Fitzgibbons, M.D., FACP

By the time they found an organ donor he was too sick to survive the operation."

"They can't do a transplant because of an infection she developed while waiting."

"The liver cancer spread before they could do the surgery."

The story is repeated thousands of times a year in U.S. hospitals. Part of the problem? Lethal myths that prevent people from donating desperately needed organs. Here are the factual answers to your questions—even the ones you may be afraid to ask.


Questions About What Happens in the Hospital

Q. If the doctors know I'm an organ donor, will they try as hard to save me?
A. Yes. In fact, your caregivers will only discuss organ donation if you or your family wants to talk about it or when you're brain dead or terminally ill.

Despite what you may see on TV, the doctor who takes care of you will not be involved in any part of the transplant process. In fact, your doctors are discouraged from bringing up the subject. Hospitals have found that nurses do a better job of explaining the process, and chaplains can help with ethical and religious issues.

Q. How do they make sure I'm dead before taking my organs?
A. Doctors determine brain death not by guesswork but by a careful series of tests. Contrary to popular myths, brain death is 100-percent fatal. The body's other organs cannot continue to live without the brain's regulation, and life-support machinery is needed while arrangements are made for organ removal.

newsletter-graphicActually, more testing is done to confirm brain death in an organ donor than in other patients. Intensive-care specialist Robert Levine, M.D., has worked with trauma patients at Houston's University of Texas Health Science Center. He points out that his part of the job is giving families "a sense that everything that needed to be done was done."

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Questions About Your Eligibility

Q. Does it matter how old I am?
A. Solid organs are generally transplanted from donors up to age 75; tissues like skin and corneas (the clear covering of the eye) may be usable even if the donor is older.

Q. What if I'm a smoker or have a chronic disease?
A. Before the organs are removed, the donor's medical history is studied—things like smoking, kidney failure, diabetes and active infections. After organs considered likely to be transplantable are removed, they're examined for signs of problems like tumors or damage from trauma.

Q. If I give my OK on my driver's license, do I still have to tell my family?
A. In almost all states, your legal next of kin must sign consent for your organs to be used, even if you gave permission. Telling your loved ones in advance that you want your organs to help others, and answering their questions, makes the process easier and helps them see that, as Dr. Levine says, you're "turning something bad into something good for someone else."


organ-donation-questions-womanQuestions About the Funeral

Q. Will donating my organs affect my family's experience of my death? Will it, for example, prolong the time before they get my body back?
A. Organ donation rarely causes any delay in funeral plans, and almost all major religions accept it as an act of charity.

There is no extra bill for the family of an organ donor; all transplant expenses are paid by the recipient's insurance and/or public assistance.

Q. Can I still have an open-casket funeral after organ donation?
A. Open-casket funerals are possible just as they are after any other type of surgery.


Questions About What's Needed and Whom You'll Help

Q. Are particular types of people especially needed for organ donation?
A. Yes, especially those with rare blood types and members of ethnic minorities (since a match is more likely when donor and recipient belong to the same group).

Q. What about particular types of organs?
A. As of publication, over 112,000 people are waiting for organ transplants, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, the organization that helps coordinate matching and transplantation. The biggest groups: About 90,000 need kidneys and 16,000 need livers. (Kidney patients outnumber others because dialysis allows them to survive longer without a transplant.)

Q. How many organs can I give, and how many people will they help?
A. A single donor can save as many as eight lives, and can help even more people—perhaps dozens—by means of tissue donation such as skin, bone marrow and heart valves.

Q. Can I allow my organs only to be donated to certain people?
A. A donor's wishes will be honored whenever possible. But remember that there may be problems with blood type or tissue incompatibility, or the intended loved one may no longer need a transplant.

Members of the controversial organization LifeSharers sign a request that their organs first go to people who themselves are registered donors. LifeSharers says they have almost 15,000 members. But one main criticism is that because they allow people to cut in line, patients who need the organ most desperately may not get it.

Q. Why is there an organ shortage? Are people really dying because not enough of us are donating?
A. Despite efforts in all states to sign up donors, a survey in fall 2008 by Donate Life America found that only 38 percent of licensed drivers had signed donor-consent cards. More recently, in a 2011 online survey of 1,000 people by the same organization, 45 percent said they were undecided, reluctant or unwilling to donate organs.

Estimates suggest that over 6,000 people die each year waiting for a transplant. But that number is probably low. Often, people who could have done well with a transplant if they'd had it earlier develop problems that make them ineligible. They're no longer included in the number who are waiting.


"We're dealing with myths," says transplant surgeon Clive Callender, M.D., founder of the National Minority Organ Tissue and Transplant Education Program. "But to the people who believe them, the myths are real."

Please sign that donor card— but don't stop there. If enough people let family and friends know their wishes and encourage them to sign their own cards, it will do more for those waiting for transplants than any government program.

STELLA FITZGIBBONS, M.D., FACP, is a board-certified internist and hospitalist with InPatient Consultants who practices at a number of hospitals in the Houston, Texas, area.

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Last updated and/or approved: October 2011.
Original article appeared in September/October 2009 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
Comments (1)add comment
written by Sandra ruiz , October 16, 2012

How come doctors get paid for doing the surgery but we don't get paid for the organ ?
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