A decision that you can make while you are alive are to be an organ and tissue donor. The outcome of the decision may not occur for many years, but it could ultimately save many lives. Unfortunately, when the decision to be a donor is realized, a tragic situation will have occurred that resulted in death. The following information is intended to provide a basic understanding of the organ and tissue donation process.
A highly specialized medical team of paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) begin lifesaving efforts at the scene. They communicate with emergency room doctors during transport to the hospital.
Doctors and nurses have advanced life-support equipment ready when the ambulance or helicopter arrives. They evaluate injuries and continue lifesaving measures including a ventilator (breathing machine), IV fluid and blood replacement, and drugs to help the heart keep beating.
When the patient's vital signs stabilize, he/she is transferred to an intensive care unit (ICU). A doctor performs special tests to see how much damage has been done to the brain and the organs. During these tests, the medical team continues advanced life-support treatment.
Brain Death is diagnosed as an irreversible loss of blood flow to the brain, causing the brain to stop functioning. Organ donors are people who suffer brain death, but their body is kept functioning by artificial means. Most people think organ donors are victims of accidents that cause a severe brain injury, such as a head trauma from a motor-vehicle accident or a gunshot wound. In fact, more than 50% of brain deaths occur when a patient has a ruptured blood vessel in his/her brain.
For organ donors, a specially trained nurse from the Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) goes to the hospital to see if the patient is medically suitable to be an organ donor. Even after the patient dies, the ventilator provides oxygen to the major organs until the family decides about donation.
For tissue donors, a specially trained triage coordinator from the OPO evaluates the patient's medical suitability for tissue donation based on information provided by the hospital.
After the doctor talks to the family about the patient's death, someone from the OPO or the specially trained hospital staff talks to them about the option of organ and tissue donation. The family is given time to ask questions and think about it before they decide. This decision is much easier if the family has already discussed organ and tissue donation at an earlier time, or if the deceased individual has already given consent for donation by being listed on the state organ and tissue donor registry.
For organ donation, the donor's blood type, height, weight, and zip code of the hospital are entered into the national computer system. This system, operated by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), finds patients awaiting transplants that best match the donor's heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and pancreas. This is called the organ allocation process.
The donor is taken to the operating room where his/her organs are surgically removed by a transplant surgeon. After the organs are retrieved, they are taken to the transplant center hospitals where the recipients are waiting. Timing is a key factor in successfully transporting the donor organ to the recipient. One organ donor can save the lives of eight people.
In addition to patients who suffer brain death, most other deaths should be considered potential tissue donors. Donated tissues can include bones, skin, heart valves, saphenous veins, and corneas. The tissue donor is taken to the operating room where his/her tissues are surgically removed by the specially trained recovery team. After the retrieval, the tissue is processed for distribution for a variety of surgical procedures. One tissue donor can help up to 50 people.
After donation, the donor is taken to a funeral home; Mid-America Transplant personnel work closely with the Funeral Director to avoid delays in the funeral. The family can have an open casket funeral if they wish, because donation does not alter the donor's appearance. Mid-America Transplant will also send the family a donor medal that honors the Gift of Life given by their loved one, which can be displayed during the memorial service.
About four to six weeks later, the donor's family receives a letter from the OPO explaining what organs and tissues were transplantable. Families of organ donors are given general information on the recipient; names of recipients are kept confidential. Mid-America Transplant continues to provide support to donor families through memorial events and by offering them grief and bereavement support through the Mid-America Transplant Center for Life.