The decision to donate organs is an act of extraordinary generosity, and for transplant recipients, it is a remarkable gift of life. But the fact of the matter is, more people are waiting for an organ transplant than there are donors. These transplants could save their life or drastically improve their life. Every donated organ is rare and precious.
People have many reasons why they don’t register as a donor, but it turns out most of those reasons are based on fears or misunderstandings about organ donation. Read the questions and answers below to help clear up some of those misunderstandings.
What is organ donation?
This involves surgically removing organs and/or tissues from someone who has died (a donor) and transplanting them into someone who is extremely ill or dying (a transplant recipient). This can only happen with the necessary consent.
Why do people need transplants?
People who are extremely ill or dying because an organ isn't working, need transplants to save their life or improve their quality of life. For example, people with end-stage heart failure, kidney failure or liver failure; or a condition they’re born with such as cystic fibrosis or type 1 diabetes. They can range from babies through to older people.
What can people donate?
When you think of organ donation, it’s interesting to note that doctors can transplant much more than vital organs. Vital organs include the heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver, and intestines. Other body parts that can be donated include:
- Bone marrow and stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and peripheral blood stem cells
- Tissue, including the corneas, skin, heart valves, bone, blood vessels, and connective tissue
If I’m an organ donor, will doctors still try to save me if I’m in an accident?
The number one priority of every member of a medical team is to save every life—regardless of whether a person is an organ donor or not. Organ donation is not discussed until AFTER a person is officially declared deceased, or if death is inevitable. What’s more, the doctors and nurses involved in a person’s care before death are not part of the transplant team.
Don’t you have to be a certain age to be a donor?
No. There is no set age limit for organ donation. Even newborns and senior citizens have been organ donors. However, when a potential donor is under the age of 18, the parent or legal guardian always is required to authorise the donation. Whether a person can donate or not depends entirely on his or her physical condition at the time of death.
My daughter, Greta, received a heart transplant when she was only 8 months old. She had been diagnosed with a type of cardiomyopathy that couldn’t be treated with medicines or other kinds of surgery.
It only took about 3 weeks from the time we found out she needed a transplant to when she received it. That’s a short time frame compared with how long some people have to wait. I learned that many things go into determining wait time. These include medical urgency, time spent on the waiting list, blood type, and other factors. The organ is offered first to the candidate that is the best match. In Greta’s case, she was young and her situation was urgent because she couldn’t even go home on medicines to wait.
Before Greta’s situation, I was registered as an organ donor because I knew it was important, but that was the extent of it. For example, I didn’t know that the need for organs greatly outweighs what is currently available. Greta is almost 10 now and every day I look at her and the life she’s living and thank her donor’s family for giving her a true gift of life. It takes just a moment to register as a donor, so I would encourage everyone to learn more and to get the facts on what organ donation means—it means life for so many.
Michelle—Greta’s mother and Pfizer employee
If I donate my organs, can I still have an open-casket funeral service?
Organ donors can have an open-casket service. Doctors use traditional surgical techniques to retrieve a person’s organs, including carefully closing all incisions. It is done with respect and dignity for all involved.
Do celebrities and wealthy people receive organ donations before other people?
No. A person’s fame and wealth have no bearing on receiving a transplant. There are strict guidelines, and the process involves a complex range of factors including: the degree of medical need and urgency, whether the donor is a match to the recipient, and transport.
Isn’t donating organs against certain religions?
Exactly the opposite is true. All major religions consider organ donation to be an individual decision or support it as the final act of love and generosity a person can accomplish.
How can I sign up to be an organ donor?
In Australia, you can join the Australian Organ Donor Registry online at https://donatelife.gov.au/register-donor-today. If you have previously indicated your decision when renewing your driver’s license, unfortunately that registry is not active anymore. You will need to register again on the link above. It only takes a minute.
In NZ, there is no official register; however you can indicate your consent when you apply for or renew your driver's licence.
Why does my family need to know my decision to donate?
Your family need to know that you want to be a donor. At the time of death, family members will be asked to confirm your decision to become a donor. If they don’t know your choice, they could override it after your death. There’s no better time than to have the discussion today.
- 1. Australian Government Organ and Tissue Authority | Donate Life.Transplantation Society of Australia and New Zealand. Clinical Guidelines for Organ Transplantation from Deceased Donors. May 2019. Accessed Oct 2019.
- 2. Australian Government Organ and Tissue Authority | Donate Life. For Students. Accessed 14 October 2019.
- 3. Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Ethical guidelines for organ transplantation from deceased donors. 2016. Accessed 14 October 2019.
- 4. Australian Government Organ and Tissue Authority | Donate Life. Best Practice Guideline for Offering Organ and Tissue Donation in Australia. 2017. Accessed 14 October 2019
- 5. Organ Donation New Zealand. FAQ’s. Accessed 14 October 2019.
- 6. Australian Government Organ and Tissue Authority | Donate Life. Frequently asked questions. Accessed 14 October 2019.