The generous organ donor
Organ donation and transplantation is a complex process, requiring the expertise and collaboration of thousands across the country every day. This intricate journey begins with one person – the organ donor. Join UNOS as we explore this lifesaving system from the perspective of the generous organ donor, their willing family and the organ procurement organization on the ground.
The deceased donation process begins with a decision. You decide you want to help save people with end-stage organ disease by donating your organs when you die. When your time comes, perhaps decades later, your organs may be used to save many lives. People most frequently become donors after a stroke, heart attack or severe head injury.
Even though cases vary, the following describes the basic steps in donation from deceased donors.
A specialized team of EMTs and paramedics begin life-saving efforts at the scene. They also contact emergency room doctors during transport.
When the team arrives, ER doctors and nurses evaluate injuries and continue life-saving measures, including a ventilator, IV fluids, blood replacement and medicine to help the heart keep beating.
After vital signs stabilize, the patient is transferred to the ICU, where a doctor performs special tests to see how much damage has been done to the brain and organs. The medical team continues advanced life saving measures during the tests.
Brain death declared
Brain death is diagnosed as an irreversible loss of blood flow to the whole brain, causing the brain to die. After brain death, the donor’s body is supported by artificial means, such as a ventilator.
Specially-trained medical practitioners from the organ procurement organization (OPO) go to the hospital to see if the patient is medically suitable for organ donation.
The doctor talks to the family about the patient’s death. Then, someone from the OPO, or specially-trained hospital staff, talks to the family about donation. If the patient signed up to be a donor in his/her state or national registry, that information is shared with the family and the OPO family counselor talks to the family to explain the donation process and answer all of the family’s questions. The OPO and hospital work together as a team to support the family and honor the patient’s wishes.
If the patient has not signed up in a state or national registry at the time of his/her death, the patient’s family takes time to think and ask questions before they decide. The donation decision is easier if the family has previously discussed donation.
The donor’s blood type, height, weight, the hospital zip code and other data are entered into UNOS’ national computer system to begin the organ allocation process. Appropriate candidates are found for whom the donor’s organs are the best match. Timing is especially important at this step and during recovery.
The donor is taken to an operating room, where organs are surgically removed. After that, the organs are sent to the transplant hospitals where candidates are waiting for them. The donor is treated with honor and respect throughout the donation.
After donation, the donor is taken to a funeral home, and the OPO works with the funeral director to honor the donor and donor family’s funeral wishes. An open casket funeral is possible after organ donation.
A few weeks later, the OPO sends a letter to the donor’s family, letting them know which organs were transplanted while keeping the names of the recipients confidential. Most OPOs continue to provide support to donor families, such as bereavement counseling and later, memorial events.
If donor families and recipients wish to correspond with each other further, they follow their OPO and transplant programs’ communication guidelines.
About living donation
In response to the shortage of organs for transplantation, relatives, loved ones, friends and even individuals with no prior relationship are serving as living donors for the growing number of people on the national organ transplant waiting list.