Here’s Why You Should Become an Organ Donor

There are more people waiting for a transplant than there are donated organs.

By Rachel Bowman
hands with a heart

There is an organ donation shortage in this country. As of January 2019, there are more than 113,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, according to the U.S. Government Information on Organ Donation and Transplantation. Although 95 percent of U.S. adults say they support organ donation, only 58 percent of Americans are signed up as registered donors.

The disparity between registered donors and those in need of an organ donation is a problem throughout the country, which is why initiatives like National Donate Life Month have been designed to encourage people to become registered donors and celebrate those who have saved lives through donation.

Dr. Anthony Watkins, an abdominal transplant surgeon at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and assistant professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine, has first-hand knowledge of the value of organ donation. Dr. Watkins has noticed that there has been increased awareness around organ donation but says that there still seems to be obstacles standing in the way of increasing the number of registered donors: “Over the last 10 years, there’s definitely been more discussion [about the importance of organ donation] because of social media, but we haven’t been able to optimize [it] to get more donations.”

Dr. Watkins attributes the lack of registered donors to misconceived notions about organ donation. “There [are] a lot of misconceptions, but we try to educate society,” explains Dr. Watkins. He believes it is important to educate people about organ donation in order to increase donations and save lives. Here are some of the most common organ donation myths, explained.

If You’re an Organ Donor, Medical Professionals Won’t Try to Save You

One of the most common myths about becoming an organ donor is that if you’re a registered donor, a medical team won’t work as hard to save your life. However, this is not the case. A medical team’s first and only priority is to save your life. Organ procurement is not considered until all possible resources have been exhausted, and if this were to happen a separate medical team would come into play.

“It’s important to point out there’s a clear distinction between the team that does to procuration and the team that approaches families and educates them to avoid bias,” explains Dr. Watkins. This means that your medical team is solely focused on your health, and only after brain death has been declared will organ donation be considered. A transplant team will come to do the procurement and there are several members involved to make the transplant as smooth as possible, including a social worker to educate the patient's family.

You Can Only Donate Once You’re Dead

Another misconception is that you can only donate when you are dead, but this is not the case. It’s possible for a living person to donate a kidney, a portion of the liver, a portion of a lung, and, in rare instances, a portion of the intestines or pancreas.

If you would like to become a living donor, Dr. Watkins suggests that you get tested to see if you can donate to someone. You are not limited to only donating to a family member, in fact, living donors can donate to strangers, family, and friends regardless of race or ethnicity as long as they are a match.

On the other hand, if you choose to only be a donor after you pass away, that is still extremely helpful. You can have the opportunity to save up to eight lives if you are an after-death donor.

I Have a Pre-Existing Condition and Cannot Donate

“People should not rule themselves out [because they have a health condition], if you have the desire to donate then it’s worthwhile to check [out your options],” says Dr. Watkins.

Only a few conditions can prevent a person from becoming an organ donor — such as HIV infection or active cancer. Even if you have a medical condition, you should consider registering because other organs or tissue might be viable. For example, if you have a history of heart disease, your heart might not be viable, but your kidney could be.

There is also no age limit to becoming an organ donor, all that matters is that your organs are healthy. The transplant team will determine what organs are viable at the time of procuration. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are several factors that determine if an organ is a viable match. The organ-matching process considers medical urgency, time spent on the waiting list, organ size, blood type, and genetic makeup to create a match.

It’s Difficult to Become an Organ Donor

Registering to become an organ donor is actually a very simple process. There are many ways to become a registered donor, such as registering on a variety of websites, registering with UNOS, and registering when you get your driver’s license. “It’s important to do at least two of those so it’s confirmed,” advises Dr. Watkins.

It’s important to let your loved ones know your desire to be an organ donor because if the situation were to arise, often your next of kin is contacted and they will be able to make sure your wish to donate is known.

My Religion Doesn’t Allow Organ Donation

Many people do not become organ donors because they are unsure if their religious beliefs allow it or if it will affect their burial. However, most major religions in the United States allow organ donation. Funeral plans will not be affected by organ donation, and open casket funerals are still possible for those who go through organ donation. “[Many people use] religion as a motivator,” says Dr. Watkins, “there are many ways we can help people on earth and after death, and this is one of the ways we can do that.”

Organ donation saves lives. If you can, and are willing to give you should consider registering. The number of people on the waiting list continues to grow every day. Make a decision to save a life: Now is the time to register.

Related: 

The Importance of Organ Donation

What a Kidney Transplant Looks Like

The Nation’s First Male Face Transplant

Article written by Rachel Bowman