Frequently Asked Questions on Organ & Tissue Donation
When a family is faced with donating a loved ones organ, they have to understand
the concept of brain death. The medical personnel have said that their loved one
is medically and legally dead. The only thing that is keeping them alive is the
machine that breathes for them. Its hard to believe that as you stand watching them
and touch their warm skin, they merely look asleep. At that time you expect that
at any minute they'll open their eyes and all will be good. What you are going through
is a normal process when donating a loved ones organs.
When the brain ceases to function, the person is permanently unable to think, breathe,
see, hear, or feel. They are no longer the person you once knew. Without the ventilator
breathing for them, the heart stops beating and vital organs such as the kidneys
and liver start to shut down. Once someone is brain dead, the medical equipment,
like the ventilator, can keep the heart and other vital organs functioning. Here
are some questions that may help you better understand organ and tissue donation.
Who can donate organs?
The option of organ donation is most often offered after brain death is declared.
Persons who die of brain death are maintained on a respirator, which, in turn, allows
the heart to continue to pump blood through the organs, which is necessary for organ
recovery. In some situations involving severely injured or ill patients who are
not brain dead, the option of organ donation may be offered after the family has
already decided to withdraw life support.
The age of a donor is less important than physical condition. Each organ is evaluated
individually. In general, there must be no history of chronic disease, infection
or cancers (except brain tumor). Organ donors may also donate tissue.
What is deceased organ donation?
Deceased organs are ones that are taken from deceased people.
Can I donate organs while alive?
Yes, living people who wish to donate their organs can donate in two ways:
- Donate one-half of a paired organ set, for example a kidney.
- Donate a portion of an organ that will still be able to function without it. For
example a portion of the liver or lung.
What is brain death?
A severe head injury or brain hemorrhage (bleeding) usually causes brain death.
When the person initially receives emergency treatment they are connected to a ventilator
to maintain breathing until further assessment can be made of the person's condition.
The determination of brain death is made only after a thorough evaluation in which
numerous tests are done. In Virginia, brain death must be determined by two physicians,
one of whom must be a neurospecialist. The physicians determining brain death are
in no way connected with the transplant team nor can they, by law, perform the organ
recovery or transplantation.
How are the vital organs used?
- Kidney- is used for people on dialysis with chronic kidney failure.
- Heart- is transplanted into people with severe heart disease. Other times
heart valves can be used on children and adults if the donor's whole heart can not
- Liver- is transplanted into people who have liver failure.
- Pancreas- is used to treat people with diabetes.
- Lungs- is used for people with sever lung disease.
What is Tissue Donation?
When death occurs from other causes then brain death, tissue donation is evaluated.
Tissue transplantation can be in a form of heart valves, skin, bladder, corneas,
bone, and other tissues.
Skin is used on burn victims, to protect their own skin. Bone can help people with
traumatic injures or bone disease. Corneas can restore someone's sight that may
be suffering from disease or injuries to the cornea. There are other tissues that
can be donated like nerves, veins, ligaments and bone marrow.
What happens once you decide to donate?
When the family consents to donation, they will go through a donor evaluation which
includes a medical and social history. Several laboratory tests will be done to
make sure there are no problems that can prevent transplantation like an infection,
hepatitis and AIDS, and other problems.
Waiting for laboratory results can take several hours, so the donor will be kept
on a ventilator. While the lab tests are running, the transplant coordinator
is locating the recipients and working with the recipients hospital and transplant
team. For additional information about laboratory testing or to see the results,
please talk to your transplant coordinator.