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Organ Donation

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What is Organ Donation?

Organ donation occurs when the organs of one person are transferred into the body of another person. People can donate while they’re living, for example, if someone elects to help a friend or family member by donating a kidney, part of a pancreas or other organ. Aside from those rare cases, however, organ donation is most common when people specify they would like their organs donated when they pass away.

Why Donate Organs?

People sometimes feel that electing to donate their organs is a vehicle for them to help others. Also, families are sometimes comforted knowing not only that the Deceased helped someone, but that part of them continues to live. Furthermore, the United States is chronically short of organs for those who need them, so organ donation is crucial for saving lives. Choosing to be an organ donor is a great way to help change someone else’s life and to give life after you’ve passed away.

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What Can Be Donated?

A deceased individual has many chances to help others because there are many parts of the human body that can be donated and transplanted.

Organs (partial or whole) that can be donated to save another’s life are:

  • Heart
  • Kidneys
  • Pancreas
  • Intestine
  • Lungs

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Tissue is a very broad category; at this time, types of tissue that can be donated are:

  • The corneas from the eyes
  • Skin
  • Veins
  • Cartilage
  • Heart Valves
  • The Middle Ear
  • Ligaments
  • Tendons
  • Bones

These body parts can be used in a variety of ways to help someone: skin can be used to help cover burns, corneas can restore sight, heart valves can help repair hearts and veins can replace faulty veins.

Stem cells can also be donated. Stem cells can come from any healthy adult aged 18-60 years old. For a stem cell donation to work in a patient the donor usually needs to be a very close tissue match; tissue types are thus more likely to match if the donor is in the same racial or ethnic group as the recipient. At this time, there are three types of blood stem cells that can be donated to help someone:

  • Bone marrow
  • Peripheral blood stem cells
  • Cord blood stem cells from umbilical cords

Finally, there is an option to donate the entire body to medical science. Medical schools and researchers need whole body donations to use as learning tools for anatomy classes and as vessels for research. Arrangements for whole body donation are usually made before death, so consult the Deceased’s will or other papers to determine whether or not they chose this option. 

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Living Donations

Blood and blood platelets can also be donated by the living and are probably the most common type of donation given. Many people choose to donate blood during blood drives and some sell blood, blood platelets or blood plasma. Blood can be donated every 56 days and blood platelets can be donated twice a week up to 24 times per year. Donating blood or blood platelets is probably one of the easiest types of donations because of the widespread availability of donation sites and frequency with which someone can donate. Also, it should be noted that tissue donations can often be stored to help someone at a later date.

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Organ Donation and Time-Sensitivity

While most families may have the best intentions when carrying out a deceased individual’s wish to donate organs, it is common for families to be unable do so. This often happens because organs must be harvested very soon after death and that is not always possible. When someone dies outside the hospital, for example, the family may not be able to get the remains into surgery to remove organs before the deadline for removing them expires. (The time by which organs must be removed varies depending upon the organ.)

Also, sometimes an inability to donate occurs when the family is unable to decide whether or not to donate the organs of a loved one. By the time a disagreement is resolved, the deadline for harvesting the organs has passed.

To combat these issues, steps have been taken to help allow for more time so that Deceased individuals are able to donate when they die. In fact, USA Today reports that the state of New York announced plans in May 2008 to dispatch ambulances with the specific intent of preserving bodies after death so that families can make decisions about organ donation and still have time for the organs to be harvested. According to the report, the ambulances are able to preserve the body before the family has consented to organ donation, though no organs are harvested without consent. This action essentially preserves the body just in case the family does decide to donate the organs. When the program was announced, it was expected to be implemented within a few months. More about this topic can be found by reading the USA Today article “NYC to Prep Potential Organ Donors Before Getting Consent."

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