You may need an organ transplant if one of your organs fails or is damaged by disease or injury. In an organ transplant, doctors remove an organ from another person and place it in your body. Doctors must specifically match donors to recipients to reduce the risk of transplant rejection, which can happen if your immune system attacks the new organ.
The organ may come from a living donor or someone who has died. When a person dies, they’re evaluated for donor suitability based on their medical history and age, which is determined by an organ procurement organization. Organs that can be transplanted include:
Tissues that can be transplanted include:
- Middle ear.
- Bone marrow.
- Heart valves.
- Connective tissue — muscles, blood vessels, nerves.
To be considered for potential donation, join a donor registry. It’s a way to legally give consent for the anatomical gift of your organs, tissues and eyes. An easy way to become a donor is to register when you get your driver’s license. You can join the registry by filling out a Document of Gift form at your local Department of Motor Vehicles. Donor registry information for any state is available from www.donatelife.net.
What recipients should know
If you need a transplant, a hospital’s transplant team determines whether you’re a good transplant candidate and, if you are, puts you on a national waiting list. And you wait. There’s no way to know how long you’ll have to wait to receive a donor organ. When an organ becomes available, all patients in the pool are assessed to determine compatibility.
The national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network is maintained by the United Network of Organ Sharing, or UNOS. Organ donors are matched to waiting recipients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When an organ becomes available, the local organ procurement organization sends medical, social and genetic information to UNOS, which then generates a list of potential recipients based on:
- Blood type.
- Tissue type.
- Organ size.
- Medical urgency of the patient’s illness.
- Time already spent on the waiting list.
- Geographical distance between the donor and the recipient.
The donation of a healthy kidney or a segment of a healthy liver from a living human being can also be arranged through transplant centers. An independent donor advocate and a dedicated living donor multidisciplinary team represent the interests and well-being of the potential living donor.
Undergoing an organ transplant can lengthen your life. Surgeons performed more than 39,000 organ transplants in 2020. Currently, there are more than 100,000 men, women and children on organ transplant waiting lists in the U.S. And another person is added to a transplant waiting list every nine minutes.
Organ transplants improve quality of life by, for example, removing the need for dialysis with a kidney transplant or restoring sight with a cornea transplant. Organ recipients take antirejection medications to prevent rejection by weakening the immune system, which lowers its ability to fight infections.
A single deceased donor can save up to eight people’s lives by donating their organs as well as improve the lives of more than 75 people by donating their tissues.
This is just an introduction to a complex and emotionally fraught topic. Decisions regarding your place in the world of organ donation should be made in conjunction with your family and, as necessary, with legal and medical professionals.