You’re sitting at the DMV, waiting your turn to receive your driver’s license, when the person behind the counter asks a question that makes you pause, “Would you like to register to be an organ donor?” Most people are only vaguely aware that the major limiting step for people waiting for a life-saving transplant is organ availability. In the U.S., approximately one person dies every hour due to the lack of an organ. For an individual considering whether to sign up to be a donor, the hurdle may be simple misunderstandings about the organ-donation process.

Here are some illuminating facts about the donation process that could save the more than 2,100 people in Wisconsin who need life-saving organs:

  1. Donation is only considered after all efforts to save a patient’s life have been exhausted by the medical team. It is only once the patient’s family has decided to withdraw life-sustaining support that the family is approached by organ-donation professionals to discuss the possibility of organ donation. All information contained in the Wisconsin Donor Registry is strictly confidential and is only available to organ- and tissue-recovery organizations at or near the time of death. Donation professionals will present documentation of your inclusion in the Registry to your family and work with them to honor that decision. Organ recovery only occurs after death has been declared. The Organ Procurement Organization is a separate team of people from the medical team that is treating the patient. This ensures that there is no conflict of interest.
  2. Every major religion in the U.S. supports organ, tissue and eye donation as one of the highest expressions of compassion and generosity.
  3. There is no cost to the donor’s family or estate for donation. The donor family pays only for medical expenses before death and costs associated with funeral expenses.
  4. Organ transplantation is monitored by the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) and matches donated organs locally, regionally and nationally. UNOS is the private, nonprofit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government. Severity of illness, time spent waiting for an organ, and blood and tissue type are all considerations for matching a patient to a donated organ. (Economic status, ethnicity and celebrity status are not considered.) Thanks to advances in medical technology and improved preservation techniques, organs, tissues and corneas may be transported to reach recipients waiting in transplant centers. Approximate preservation times are:
    • Heart or lungs — 4 to 6 hours
    • Pancreas — 12 to 24 hours
    • Liver — 6 to 8 hours
    • Kidneys — 24 to 72 hours
    • Corneas — 5 to 7 days
    • Heart valves, skin, bone, tendons and veins — 3 to 5 years
  5. After organ transplantation, it is possible for the donor’s family and the recipient to meet. If both the donor family and the recipient agree to sign a release-of-information form (available through the Organ Procurement Organization, Tissue Bank or Lion’s Eye Bank), they may then exchange names, correspond and eventually meet if they choose. I have seen instances where donation provides immediate and long-term consolation for family members, especially in light of sudden, unexpected circumstances.
  6. Live donation is an option for kidney and liver transplant. Live donation allows for more time in pre-op care, and reduces wait time for a donor.

Learn More About Organ Transplant and Donation

Joohyun Kim, MD, PhD, transplant surgeon and blog author
About the Author

Joohyun Kim, MD, PhD, is a transplant surgeon at Froedtert Hospital. He is an associate professor and the surgical director for the kidney and liver transplant programs.

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