Table of Contents
- What is an Organ Donor?
- Benefits of Organ Donation
- How to Become an Organ Donor
- Who Should You Notify About Your Decision to Become an Organ Donor?
- What Happens at the Time of Need?
- Acts of Closure
What is an Organ Donor?
An organ donor is someone who agrees to allow their organs or tissues to be used in medical science or medical treatment of others after the donor passes away.
In some cases, a close friend or family member might decide to donate a healthy organ to someone during their lifetime (such as a kidney), but this is a different type of organ donation. This article discusses becoming an organ donor (preplanning to donate your organs after you pass away), how that might impact any other preplanning you do, and how to discuss your choices with loved ones.
Benefits of Organ Donation
The benefits of organ donation are that, after you have passed away, any part of your body that is still healthy and functional may be used to provide a new lease on life to someone else. Many people see this as a positive decision and a way that they can make their legacy count even more after they are gone.
Some myths about organ donation do keep people from signing up. For example, some people mistakenly believe that agreeing to be an organ donor may lead to lower-quality medical care in end-of-life or life-threatening situations. The false assumption here is that medical providers may “let” you die if they know they can use your organ to save someone else.
In reality, medical professionals have an ethical responsibility to every patient, and the only priority they have regarding you is your individual care. Organ donation doesn’t even become a possibility until all life-saving measures have failed, according to the U.S. Department on Health and Human Services. You can read about more organ donor myths on their website.
While most major religions in the United States support organ donation as an act of kindness and love, it may not be something your personal beliefs allow. If you’re not sure how organ donation is looked at in your faith, consider speaking with a trusted religious leader before making a decision.
How to Become an Organ Donor
Organ donor registration is managed at the state level. You can choose to sign up online with the appropriate state organization or at your nearest department of motor vehicles. You can use the state search at OrganDonor.gov to find the right online forms to complete if you want to register via the internet.
If you register with your DMV, you’ll need photo identification. You may be required to show more than one form of ID, so call ahead or check online to find out your state’s identification requirements. Once you register, you should receive an organ donor card to keep in your wallet; you may also receive an updated driver’s license that indicates you’re a donor.
After registering, consider updating other documents such as your advance directive or living will. These documents communicate your end-of-life-care wishes to healthcare providers if you’re unable to do so, making them a great place to list whether you wish to be an organ donor or not.
Who Should You Notify About Your Decision to Become an Organ Donor?
In addition to recording your decision in legal documents, you should let close friends and family members know you’re an organ donor. They may be the first line of communication during the time of need. You may also want to inform your religious leader (such as a pastor), attorney, and medical providers.
During the time of need, your next of kin or other close relative or friend should inform the following that you’re an organ donor:
- the authorities (such as the coroner or police, if relevant to the situation)
- funeral home or cremation provider
How your remains are handled may differ if you’re an organ donor. If someone passes away outside of a hospital, whoever is with them or finds them should call 911; they should also inform the 911 operator that the deceased is an organ donor.
What Happens at the Time of Need?
In most cases, organ donation is an option only if a person passes away while in a hospital. The inner organs require a constant flow of oxygen and blood, which hospital staff can maintain even after someone has passed. However, tissue and eye donation may still be possible if someone passes away outside of a hospital.
Immediately after an organ donor has passed away, medical professionals will make arrangements for any organ donation that will occur. Organs aren’t viable for long outside of the body, so they typically are transported immediately to a transplant site. Because of this, not everyone who is a registered organ donor may end up donating organs — the logistics have to line up appropriately, and someone in need of the matching organ must be on the transplant list.
If a match is found and organs or other tissues are needed, they are removed by experienced surgeons. Since all incisions required for this process are closed surgically, organ donation doesn’t necessarily interfere with any plans for an open-casket viewing or memorial.
Following organ donation procedures, remains may be transported to a funeral home or a crematory, and all other preplanned services can typically take place without any modifications.
Acts of Closure
After organs are removed, the medical staff and transplant teams take over. There is typically nothing the family of the deceased needs to do, although many of the federally certified organ recovery organizations will send a letter to the next of kin detailing how their loved one’s donation helped others. Some families may even want to meet the people their loved one helped as a final act of closure.
If you’re interested in more articles on preplanning or end-of-life decision-making, subscribe to our Thinking Ahead email series.
Note: Neptune Society doesn’t take a position on becoming an organ donor. This article is intended to provide information to help families. If you are considering organ donation, consult a medical professional regarding your next steps, and any questions or concerns you may have.