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organ donation

Alternative Names 
"the gift of life"

Organs such as the kidneys, heart, lungs, pancreas, and liver can be transplanted from one person into another person who is in need of a new organ. Organ donation can give others a second chance at life.

What is the information for this topic? 
Organ donors are people in good health who have died or have been declared brain dead. Most organ donors are victims of accidents that cause fatal head injuries, such as car accidents or gunshot wounds. The organs can be preserved only a short period of time, usually several hours, before being transplanted into the recipient, or person in need of the new organ. Usually many organs are removed from the brain dead donor. There may be 2 or 3 teams of surgeons who operate on the donor at the same time. After the organs are removed, they are packed for transport to the recipient. The donor's chest and abdomen are sewn up and normal preparations for a funeral take place.

Organs that can be transplanted include:
  • the heart
  • the lungs
  • kidneys
  • pancreas
  • liver
  • intestines
Tissues and other structures can be donated as well. These include:
  • the cornea, the transparent coating that covers the front of the eye
  • skin
  • bone marrow
  • heart valves
  • muscle
  • cartilage
Persons who want to donate organs after they die can sign a card to indicate their wishes. This can be done when they renew their driver's licence or by filling out a donor card. Several donor organisations provide these cards.

Family members should be told about a person's wishes so that they know ahead of time. Families are usually asked to allow the donation. Their decision is easier if they know that the person wanted to donate organs. Many families are comforted by the fact that their loss can help give someone else a new life.

A person with cancer or an infection in the blood known as sepsis would not be able to be an organ donor. Anyone who has HIV or whose behaviour places them at risk for HIV would not be allowed to donate organs. Other rules for donors exist, depending on the organ being donated. These will be handled at the time of death.

An organ donor has to be declared brain dead before organ donation is considered. Brain death is defined as loss of brain activity with permanent loss of function or death to important parts of the brain that control heart rate, respiration and other reflexes. In order to do this, two doctors must determine that the brain has permanently lost its ability to function. That is, without medications and a ventilator, all vital functions will cease operating.

Some facts about organ donation:
  • An open casket is still possible after organ donation because the donor's body is not disfigured.
  • There is no cost to the family of the donor.
  • All major religions support organ donation.
  • A person who has signed a donor card will receive the same medical care as one who has not. Some people worry that if the hospital knows they are potential organ donors, the staff will not do everything to save them.
  • Organ donation is not experimental. Success rates for organ donation are as high as 95%. Transplants have been done since the 1950s.
  • Donors range in age from newborns to aged citizens.
  • Information about the donor is given only to the person receiving the organ and only if the donor's family allows it.
Organ donation can extend and enhance lives. Medical advances continue to make organ transplants safer and more effective. Unfortunately, the number of organs donated has not increased at the same pace. In Australia, at any one time there are approximately 2500 people waiting for an organ transplant or tissue graft. 15% of those on the heart, lung or liver lists will die before being offered a transplant.

Author: Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
Reviewer: eknohow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 26/10/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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