Organ Donation: Myths and Misperceptions

The numbers are staggering. The need is real. The subject is seemingly taboo. February 14 is officially National Donor Day. On the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) website, you can see current numbers of both total and active patients waiting for a transplant as well as the actual number of donors and transplants done. There is a wide gap between the number of organs needed and the number of candidates for transplant. Why do you think that is?

First, everyone has seen Hollywood’s over dramatization and heard myths; Doctors do not work as hard to save you if they know you are a donor; Doctors will kill you to get your organs if they know you are a donor; donor’s families cannot afford the medical cost of donation; what if we donate and my loved one would have woken up; and the over dramatic tale involving unwary travelers waking in a bathtub of ice water with their kidneys stolen.

The facts are that when you are sick or injured, and admitted to the hospital, the number one priority is to save your life, regardless of your donation status. There is no cost to the donor or their family for organ and tissue donation. And although people do wake up and recover from comas, they do not from brain death. Brain death is not coma. Brain death is death and brain death is required before donor organs can be removed.

So why not donate? Too young? Too old? Medical illness? Religious beliefs? Again the facts are, you are never too young or old to donate. Tissue, like skin, bone, and corneas, are still able to be donated up until age 80 and beyond. Although tissue donation is not as widely publicized as organ transplant (i.e. heart, liver, and lung), to the patient that needs a cornea or bone graft, it is very dramatic. Further, while it is true that as we age our organs will deteriorate, it is the condition of the organ that is more important than the age of the donor. For example, the liver of a 35 year old alcoholic may be in worse shape than a 65 year old who never has drunk any alcohol. As for medical illnesses, there are very few that are not suitable for organ donation; cancer and some infections like meningitis, acute hepatitis, and HIV, and current IV drug use are the only true contraindications to organ donation. Finally, all major religions in the United states support tissue and organ donation, and see it as a final act of love and generosity to others.

If you are interested in becoming a donor, here are a few steps to take so that your wishes are made known. Designate on your driver’s license that you wish to be a donor. Tell your family, close friends, and even your physician or minister about your decision as this will reinforce your wishes and help them all during an otherwise difficult time. Finally, add your wishes to your advance directives, will, or living will to ensure your wishes are carried out. So, this Valentine’s Day, consider the gift of life that you have to give and your chance to positively change the life of someone after you have gone.

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