Donate Life: Learn About Organ, Cell and Tissue Donation
You have the power to change people’s lives. Even if you feel like you can’t make a difference because of limited time, money or resources, everything you need to save lives is already inside you. When you donate organs, tissues or cells, you can save the life of a patient with chronic illness, change the lives of their families and communities, or contribute to advances in medical research to treat some of the most complicated and devastating diseases.
Most people are aware of the possibility of donating their organs and tissues when they die, but there are many opportunities for living donors too! In this article, you’ll find fundamental information on both end of life and living donor donations, and how to get involved.
End of life tissue and organ donations
Hundreds of thousands of patients in the US alone are waiting for a life-saving organ donation. When you register as an organ donor, you can help as many as 50 different people with your healthy organs and tissues after you pass away. Many family members have expressed that they felt more at peace knowing that their deceased loved one was able to save lives.
You can ensure that your organs will be used to save lives if you happen to pass away in a hospital by signing up on a national (UK) or state (US) organ donation registry. In the US, you can also make this election when you obtain or renew your driver’s license.
It’s also important to discuss your wishes with your family so they are comfortable signing the consent form to donate your organs should the worst happen.
Brain and spinal cord tissue donations
Brain tissue, spinal cord tissue and spinal fluids are not given to recipient patients, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t donate them. These precious organs and tissues are used in medical research to find cures and treatments for very complex and terrible diseases. Independent registries are available if you have interest in a particular illness. For example, patients with MS, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease are encourages to register to donate their brain tissues to the corresponding “brain bank”.
Healthy donors with no brain diseases are also extremely important in scientific research. You can find a list of brain banks in the US through the NIH.gov website or in the UK through the HTA.gov website. Contact brain banks directly for information on registering for this type of donation – brain tissue is considered separate from other organ donations and not included automatically, even if you are a registered organ donor.
Myths about what happens when you donate organs
Unfortunately, many people are deterred from becoming end of life organ donors because of widespread myths and misinformation. Some of the most common myths associated with organ and tissue donation are:
“The hospital will let me die so they can use my organs”. This is simply not true. When you are in the hospital, the doctors’ job is to save you, not anybody else. Organ donors receive the same quality of care as non-donors.
“I won’t really be dead when they take my organs out”. False again – you will actually receive additional tests to confirm you are dead before any organs are removed compared to tests used for non-donors.
“My family won’t be able to have an open-casket funeral”. Organ donation is not disfiguring, and any incisions from organ removal will be covered by your clothing at the viewing or funeral.
“My family will have to pay for the costs of the donation”. Your family will bear no additional costs as a result of your being an organ donor.
“It’s against my religion”. The vast majority of religions allow and even encourage you to donate your organs when you die, viewing it as an act of charity and neighborly love. Religions that permit organ donation include: African Methodist Episcopal and AME Zion, Amish, Buddhism, Catholicism, Christian Scientist, Church of England, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Jehovah’s Witness (under certain conditions), Judaism (all three denominations), Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Mormon (LDS), Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, Southern Baptist Convention, Quakers, Unitarian, United Church of Christ. The only religion that appears to discourage or prohibit organ donation is Shinto. If you are unsure, ask a member of your clergy for guidance.
So as you can see, there are plenty of reasons to become an organ donor (at least 50!) and very few reasons not to. The quote, “Please don’t take your organs to heaven; Heaven knows we need them here” sums it all up very nicely.
Living donor cell and tissue donations
There are many opportunities to make a difference in the life of a patient and their family while you are still alive as a living donor. Most of these donations will require screening in the form of questionnaires, blood tests, tissue typing, and/or psychological evaluations. The least invasive donations you can make as a living donor include: blood, umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, sperm and eggs. The more serious and invasive donations include: kidney, liver, lung and pancreas.
Blood donors save three lives with each donation
Hospitals always need blood, especially rare blood types, and one whole blood donation is enough to save up to three patients’ lives. Donating blood is quick, easy and painless (except for a tiny finger prick and a slight needle pinch). Contact your local blood bank for more information on donating. You usually only need a government ID and will fill out a questionnaire to rule out the risk of blood-borne pathogens. As a bonus, many blood banks will give you a complimentary blood pressure and cholesterol reading, plus a snack when you finish.
Donate cord blood and help save the lives of leukemia patients
When your baby is born, the umbilical cord and placenta are usually thrown away. But that same umbilical cord contains cells that can save the lives of patients with leukemia, lymphoma, and other diseases. The process of donating cord blood to a public cord blood bank doesn’t change your labor or delivery process at all, and no blood is taken from your baby. After your baby is born, the umbilical cord is clamped and removed along with the placenta, and the blood from them is then removed and sent anonymously to the cord blood bank, where it will be matched with a compatible recipient in the future.
If you are interested in donating cord blood, you should contact your local cord blood bank between weeks 28 and 34 of your pregnancy and discuss your wishes with your obstetrician, as well as the hospital staff when you go into labor.
Bone marrow donations can help patients with blood disorders
Bone marrow donations and peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donations provide similar benefits as cord blood to patients suffering from blood cancers and other disorders, like sickle cell anemia, but can be taken at any time from a healthy adult (age 18-44 is preferred).
PBSC donations are less invasive, and require injections four days in a row at the hospital or clinic to stimulate production of these important stem cells. The next day, the stem cells will be separated from the rest of your blood using a special machine that is painless and very much like a regular blood donation except it may last 4-5 hours.
Bone marrow donations are performed in a hospital operating room. Doctors will use a needle to remove fluid from inside your pelvic bone, which contains valuable stem cells that can turn into all the cells found in healthy blood once it is given to the recipient. You will be given anesthesia and won’t feel pain during the procedure, but most donors report back or hip pain that lasts for several days afterward.
To become a PBSC or marrow donor, you will need to sign up with a bone marrow registry and will be informed when there is a potential match. In the United States, this is done through BeTheMatch.org, and in the UK through either the British Bone Marrow Registry or the Anthony Nolan Trust register.
Donate eggs or sperm so a couple can become a family
Donating sperm is fairly self-explanatory and not the least bit invasive. Egg donations, as you might have guessed, are very different. Being an egg donor requires a medical evaluation, medical and family history, psychological evaluation and interview questions. This is partially to ensure a healthy pregnancy and child for the recipient, and partially to ensure a positive experience for the donor.
After you have been matched with a recipient, the process itself will take 3-4 weeks. You will need to inject yourself with hormones that cause your ovaries to release multiple eggs at ovulation in sync with the recipient’s menstrual cycle, and will have to be monitored regularly by the clinic during this time. After ovulation is induced, the eggs will be removed by a doctor under IV sedation with ultrasound guided trans-vaginal aspiration. The hormones involved in this procedure can be intense and have strong emotional and physical side effects. For this reason, you can be paid up to $8000 in the US or £750 in the UK per completed donation as compensation for time, travel and discomfort (it is illegal to pay for the eggs themselves).
You can get more information on sperm and egg donations from your local reproductive health clinics.
Living donor organ donations
Finally, there are a few organs or portions of organs that can be donated by living donors. Almost all living donors go on to have completely normal, healthy lives following their donations. Although these organ donations require surgery and are a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, most healthy adults can donate a kidney, portion of liver, lung lobe, or portion of their pancreas and fully recover within two to eight weeks (lung and pancreas donations are rare, however). Typically, living donors donate an organ to a family member or close friend who is a match, but it is also possible to make a non-directed or altruistic donation to a stranger who happens to be a match.
Considering that a new patient is added to the organ donation waiting list every ten minutes, a living donor organ donation helps in at least three ways: giving a needy recipient a life-saving organ, allowing the recipient to get a transplant before serious, life-threatening complications develop, and removing the recipient from the national waiting list so that someone else has another chance at life.
Women who are planning to have children in the future should talk to their doctors before making a living organ donation, as previous organ donation may cause an increased risk of hypertension and preeclampsia during pregnancy.
If you work or are planning to work in the military, police force or fire department, you should consult your superiors before becoming a living donor, as you may be ineligible for service with only one kidney.
Living kidney donations
The most common organ donated by living donors is a kidney. A healthy adult can live a normal life with a single kidney, and your living kidney donation is even more valuable than a kidney donated from a deceased person because it is more likely to function correctly immediately after transplantation. After donating, your remaining kidney will grow slightly so it can better do the work of two kidneys. Most living kidney donors can return to normal activities after two to six weeks of recovery. You can sign up as a living kidney donor in the US on the American Transplant Foundation website. In the UK, you can find a list of transplant centers to contact at OrganDonation.nhs.uk.
The liver is the only organ able to completely regenerate itself. A living liver donation involves the removal of a moderate portion of your liver, which is given to a compatible recipient. Both the donor and recipient will have enough liver to support normal bodily functions, and over the next two months or so, both livers will grow back to a normal size. The average recovery time for liver donation is eight to ten weeks. Prospective donors in the US can get more information from the American Transplant Foundation, or through the NHS for UK residents.