Organ donation: Facts and myths

April 7, 2016 Providence Health Team

For many years, a wild tale circulated on the Internet about a man who woke up in a bathtub full of ice. One of his kidneys was missing and a note left at the scene stated that the organ had been sold on the black market. There was no evidence this incident occurred, yet the tale fueled fears and misperceptions about organ donation and transplantation.

Unfortunately, this myth and many others like it continue to gravely impact the lives of thousands of people every year. According to the American Transplant Foundation, more than 121,000 people in the U.S. are on the waiting list for an organ transplant, and another name is added every 10 minutes. The number of organ donors, however, is significantly less. Even though research shows that 90 percent of Americans say they support organ donation, in 2015 there were 15,068 organ donors; that’s only 12 percent of the organs needed to save lives.

Wait times for organs varies

The enormous gap in need versus availability affects wait times. And for some, a long wait can be fatal. Marwa Kilani, M.D., medical director of Palliative Care at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, California, and a member of the advisory board at OneLegacy, says the average wait time for most patients in need of a kidney can be seven years, although it’s less for hearts, lungs and other organs. Dr. Kilani has known patients who have waited even longer – 13 years, in one case.

There are a lot of reasons for varying wait times. One persistent misperception is that wealth or celebrity status helps move patients up the waiting list more quickly. But Dr. Kilani says that’s not true. A patient’s income, race or social status does not factor into the organ allocation process.

Organ recipients are selected based on medical need and compatibility. Location also determines wait times. For example, patients in Southern California wait longer for organs than patients in Washington or Oregon. Dr. Kilani says this has to do with the overall health of the population, the availability of organs and the number of people on the waiting list in the region.

Another myth

Another falsehood that continues to circulate is the belief that once a doctor or hospital knows a patient is registered as an organ donor, caregivers are less motivated to save the patient’s life. “That’s false,” says Dr. Kilani. Organ and tissue donation is not discussed by the doctors and nurses caring for a patient. And typically, the medical staff involved in a patient’s care is not involved in the recovery or transplantation of donated organs or tissues if the patient dies.

At the time of a registered donor’s death, a procurement organization such as OneLegacy evaluates the patient and coordinates the recovery of organs or tissues to be donated. An organization coordinator works with the person’s family as well. Recognizing the pain in the loss of a loved one, procurement organizations have extensive support services to care for families. Dr. Kilani says that while the relationship between a hospital and a procurement organization is collaborative, their roles are very different.

Donate at any age

Donating organs and tissue is not only for the young and healthy. People living with chronic diseases, as well as people 65 and older, are encouraged to register as organ or tissue donors. Dr. Kilani says older patients can donate skin, which can be used on burn victims, and bone for bone grafts. Cartilage, corneas and heart valves also can be donated. “Donating an organ or tissues is an honorable commitment to give back to the community,” says Dr. Kilani.

Get the facts

Here’s more about organ donation and how it works. Share this information with friends and family:

  • A national computer system and strict standards ensure ethical and fair distribution of organs. Organs are matched by blood and tissue typing, size, medical urgency, waiting time and geographic location.
  • Organs and tissues that can be donated include: heart, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, liver, intestines, corneas, skin, tendons, bone and heart valves. One deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation, and can save and enhance more than 100 lives through tissue donation.
  • People of all ages and medical histories should consider themselves potential donors. Even people in their 80s and 90s can donate skin, bone, heart valves, cartilage and corneas.
  • Even if you have indicated your wishes on your drivers’ license, state donor registry or a donor card, share your decision with your family so they know your wishes.
  • There is no cost to the donor’s family or estate for organ and tissue donation.
  • If you are sick or injured and admitted to the hospital, the No. 1 priority is to save your life. Organ donation can only be considered after brain death has been declared by a physician.
  • Information about an organ donor is only released to the recipient if the family of the donor requests or agrees to it. Otherwise, a patient’s privacy is maintained for both donor families and recipients.
  • It’s not the age of a donor that matters; it’s the condition of his or her organs.
  • Organ donation is consistent with the beliefs of most major religions.
  • An open-casket funeral is possible for organ and tissue donors.

April is National Donate Life month. Since this celebration first began in 2003, the number of organ donations and transplants in the U.S. has steadily risen. The number of donors continues to rise as well, but it hasn’t kept pace with the immense need.

To learn more about how you can help others through organ or tissue donation, talk to your health care provider or visit the American Transplant Foundation. If you don’t have a Providence provider, find one near you.

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