As of 2020 there were more than 183,000 people in the United States on the national organ transplant waiting list. While it can be difficult to think about donating your organs and tissue, becoming a donor can offer a precious second chance at life to many patients.
Unfortunately, various opinion polls show there is a significant gap between the number of people who support the idea of organ donation and the number of people who actually register. Misconceptions may be partially responsible for the disparity. We asked Dr. Alexis Shafii, surgical director, heart transplantation, Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, and associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, for clarity on prevalent myths and who can be considered as a candidate for organ donation.
Q: What happens to your body if you’re an organ donor?
A: Once a person passes away and their brain no longer has activity, the organs are harvested through a surgical procedure.
Organ donation involves visceral organs of the body such as the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, pancreas and small intestine. Upon completion of the organ donation process, the donor is taken to the funeral home for preparation for burial or cremation.
Q: Can anyone be an organ donor?
A: Every person can be considered for organ donation but not everyone will qualify. One issue can be related to the quality of the organs. A person may have had a medical condition or an infectious disease that affected the health of the organ. In most cases, patients with blood-born illnesses or cancer would not be considered as potential organ donors. It’s also unlikely that we would use organs from patients of advanced age (over 65 years old). It’s important to note that while one organ may not be suitable for donation, other organs within the same person may be in good condition and qualify.
Q: Why are there so many people on the transplant waiting list?
A: Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough donor organs available. I think there is some hesitancy around people declaring themselves as organ donors. Part of the challenge is also education within the medical community—having organ donation conversations with families and reaching out to the donor team when it’s appropriate.
Q: Are there myths that make people hesitant about donating organs?
A: Yes. One is that during the organ harvesting procedure all usable organs and tissue are removed. This isn’t true. Individuals and families actually have the right to declare which organs and tissue a person will donate. There is also the myth that receiving a donated heart causes the patient to take on the character of the donor, but there is no scientific support for this. I have also heard the myth that families are charged additional medical fees if they agree to organ donation for a loved one, which is also untrue. Once a patient has passed away and is declared an organ donor, the hospital discharges the patient, so no further charges are billed. Any charges that accrue for the care of the donor are covered by the organ procurement organization.
Q: Does deciding to become an organ or tissue donor affect the quality of your medical care?
A: Another myth is that organ donors seeking medical care will not receive life-saving treatments because the interest in their available organs is greater than the goal of the patient’s healing. This is false, because the donation teams are always completely separate from the medical care teams. The medical team will only involve the transplant team when a patient is declared brain dead or when withdrawing life support is being considered by the patient’s family.
Q: Why is organ donation so important in surgical medicine?
A: Organ donation has a tremendous impact on patients and their families, and there are many forms of end-organ failure that can only treated by donated organs. There are limits to what can be done with medicine and conventional surgical therapies, while transplant is an extraordinary therapy that can bring hope and cure in the direst of cases.
-By Bertie Taylor, senior writer in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine