Valentine’s Day is the holiday that encourages us to follow our hearts. February 14th is also National Organ Donor Day, reminding us that our hearts can play an even more important role after death: saving a life. Nearly 130,000 organs are transplanted annually across the globe, but, even so, an average of 20 people die each day waiting on the transplant list.
Read on to learn more about different countries’ organ donation protocols, how you can become an organ donor, and common misconceptions about the process.
How to Donate Your Organs Anywhere in the World
What Organs can be Donated?
After your death, organs that can be donated include the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, small intestines, and more. Additionally, you can donate tissues: corneas, skin, middle ear veins, heart valves, tendons, ligaments, bones, and cartilage. The viability of different organs and tissues are dependent on the mechanism of death (cardiac or brain death) and the circumstances.
Donated organs will help patients who are diagnosed with heart failure, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failure, liver failure, and other common illnesses. Your tissue and eye donations can heal the lives of more than 75 people and restore the sight of two people.
A Global Challenge
Organs are in high demand throughout the world. In most countries, buying and selling organs for transplants is illegal, but this does not prevent medical tourism or black market dealings. The best solution is for people who are eligible to agree to be organ donors after death.
Spain leads the way in organ donation per million people, providing 6% of the world’s donations while only representing 0.6% of the global population. The number of organ donations globally has increased due to opt-out protocols passed by government legislation, inclusion of asystolic or non-heart-beating donors, and increased awareness. However, some areas of the world have a greater resistance to the idea of organ donation for religious or cultural reasons.
Latin America has historically had a lower level of organ donation per capita, although countries like Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil, following models established in Spain, are making great strides in increasing the number of potential donors. In Mexico, there has been a steady effort to increase the normalization and stop the spread of misinformation about organ donation. Similar reservations, in addition to the challenge of accessing basic care and resources, extend to areas of sub-Saharan Africa and in some areas of Asia.
Who Can Be An Organ Donor?
Most countries have few restrictions on becoming a potential donor. Your medical history and health circumstances will be considered before any donation occurs. In general, you must be over 18 years of age (over 16 is permitted in Australia), cannot have opted-out (in countries where this is possible), and must not be part of an excluded population.
In England, excluded populations include those under 18 years of age, visitors to England or those not living there voluntarily, and those who have lived in England for less than 12 months before death. In Mexico, medical officials will consider donors up to 90 years of age. Canada specifically states that people will not be excluded on the basis of age, medical condition, or sexual orientation. The oldest Canadian organ donor was 92 and the oldest tissue donor was 104 years old!
In fact, having a wide array of donors is critically important. Of those people who need a bone marrow transplant, 70% of them do not have a matching donor in their family. You could be their perfect match!
How Do I Become An Organ Donor?
Countries including Spain, Mexico, Wales, England, Scotland, and the Canadian province Nova Scotia, among others, have adopted an “opt-out” practice. Everyone is automatically signed up to participate in organ donation unless they choose not to (i.e., “opt-out”). The United States, other areas of Canada, and Australia have not adopted the opt-out practices, instead maintaining a process to opt-in or actively choose to be an organ donor through registration.
Regardless of stated preference, many countries also request the permission of the family to make the ultimate choice. If you feel strongly about this decision, it’s a good idea to include it in your health care power of attorney documents.
In countries where you must “opt-in,” you can sign up via online registries. In the United States and several provinces in Canada you can also make this preference known on your driver’s license application.
Misconceptions About Organ Donation
Making choices for yourself or a loved one to proceed with organ donation can be really challenging. Beyond the cultural or religious importance of the body, it is difficult to understand what “brain death” or “cardiac death” means in the context of you or your loved one. However, many of the common misconceptions are just that.
I can’t become an organ donor because I am too _________ (elderly, sick, etc.).
- You are only a potential donor until after your death and it is at that time that your medical condition will be evaluated and the decision made about your donor abilities. Even people who are excluded from organ donation because of certain illnesses may still be eligible for tissue and cornea donations.
Doctors will not make their best effort to save me if I am an organ donor.
- Ethical doctors are in the business of keeping patients alive. If brain or cardiac death is declared, it is typically after concerted efforts to save your life and additional tests and monitoring. The subject of organ donation is not broached until after death is declared.
- Furthermore, most transplant teams are not going to be the same as your attending physicians. Specialized teams are often employed for transplant procedures.
I won’t be able to have an open viewing or I will not be presentable to my family if I donate organs and/or tissues.
- There are methods employed by funeral directors and techniques you can use at home that will allow the person to be viewed after organ or tissue donation. In most places, surgeons assisting with the transplant process will close incisions and handle the body carefully to try to ensure that your body will be presentable for viewing.
It will be costly to donate organs.
- In most scenarios organ donation does not cost the family anything. The family may be responsible for standard medical expenses, but the cost of the organ donation procedure should not be put onto the family.
The Best Valentine’s Day Gift
Ultimately, the decision to donate organs and tissues after death is up to the individual, but it’s an amazing final gift that your body can provide. Just one organ donor can save as many as eight lives! You can also make the choice to donate your body to science after your organ donation.
If you are already on the donation list or are on your way to sign up, another important thing you can do pre-mortem is to donate blood and platelets. Every 30 seconds there is someone in need of platelets while every two seconds there is someone in need of a blood transfusion. This is a gift you can give today!
Do the romantic thing this Valentine’s Day and give your heart away…to someone on the donor list!
Benefits of Donating Your Organs
- Organ Donation: On average, 20 people die each day waiting for a transplant. Just one organ donor can save as many as eight lives.
- Tissue & Eye Donation: One donor can help restore sight to two people and heal the lives of more than 75 people.
- Bone Marrow Donation: Of the patients in need of a bone marrow transplant due to disease, infection, or chemotherapy, 70 percent of them do not have a matching donor in their family. You could be the perfect match!
- Platelet Donation: Platelets are essential to those fighting and surviving cancers, chronic diseases, and traumatic injuries. Every 30 seconds there is someone in need of platelets.
- Blood Donation: Approximately every two seconds, there is someone in need of a blood transfusion, which translates to the need of over 41,000 daily donations. Donating blood is not only good for the health of those who need it but also for the donors who give the gift.
Statistics sourced from The Organ Donation Alliance.