The organs suitable for transplantation include the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, kidneys, and sometimes the small intestine. As “vascular” organs, each of these has a circulating blood supply that delivers oxygen and nutrients to sustain the organ and its function. Organ donation is possible only in rare circumstances. The opportunity to recover vascular organs is entirely dependent on the manner of the individual’s death. This situation known as brain death is extremely rare, occurring only in an estimated one percent of all deaths. Brain death occurs when the blood flow to the brain stops, causing the cells in the brain to die. It is the irreversible cessation of all brain function. It can happen after a severe brain injury, such as a brain aneurysm or trauma. A physician who is not associated with the transplant team determines brain death. By medical and legal definition, brain death is death. Accepting brain death as “death” may be difficult for family members because their loved is in the hospital on a respirator and appears to just be unconscious or in a coma.
When brain death occurs, organs are viable for only a short period of time and only if a respirator continues to support the body until the organs are retrieved. Organs are only recovered for transplant after a specific recipient has been identified through the national sharing guidelines established by the United Network for Organ Sharing.
The Mid-America Transplant Family Support Coordinator assists the family with the consent process at the hospital and lets the family know which organs were used for transplantation. Mid-America Transplant will inform donor families about recipients of their loved one’s organs.
Often, recipients send a note of thanks to the donor family. However, sometimes recipients are so overwhelmed by the magnitude of their lifesaving gift they feel they cannot find the right words to thank the donor family. Most recipients have said that writing their donor family is the most difficult thing they have ever done. Feelings of guilt or inadequacy, along with fear of causing the donor family more pain, may inhibit the recipient from being able to express their gratitude.