FUNDAMENTALS OF ORGAN DONATION

Pathways through which people may become organ and tissue donors can be confusing. Pathways to consent for donation (for yourself) while still alive thereby authorizing action upon your own wishes should no longer be confusing.

A live donor may give a kidney, partial liver, partial lung, partial intestine, or partial pancreas.

A deceased donor may give one or both lungs, a heart, a liver (or 2 pieces of a liver for 2 different recipients), a pancreas, a small intestine, two kidneys, a face, two hands, tissue for up to 50 different recipients.

Organs will not be recovered (procured) for donation unless death has been declared by a physician who has no connection to the organ donation team.

Death may be legally declared on the basis of two different criteria. In the first pathway to organ donation, brain death has occurred and has been formally declared. Very specific criteria must be met including: a body temperature of  >96.8 degrees, exclusion of drug intoxication or poisoning, absence of spontaneous breathing, absence of movement or responsiveness (except for reflexes), absence of brainstem activity.

Not all individuals with severe neurologic injury will end up with death of the brain. Today, many of us have advised our families or healthcare proxies that we would not like to be maintained in vegetative or moribund states. Families are legally and socially supported in decisions to withdraw supportive care in these circumstances. Following such a decision, a family may be approached about organ donation with the following question: “If your loved one dies within one hour of the withdrawal of support (for example, after the breathing tube has been removed) and a physician who is separate from the organ donation team declares that death has occurred because circulation has stopped, can the organs be rapidly removed for the purpose of organ donation? This is donation after circulatory death (DCD).

When support has been withdrawn from a person with consent for DCD but death does not happen within 60 minutes, organ donation does not occur. The individual will still be expected to die but the focus remains comfort care. No organ recovery takes place because death has not occurred within the timeframe necessary for the organs to remain transplantable.

Brain death is not a natural state. Since a brain dead person does not breathe spontaneously, the heart and other organs (except for the brain whose cells are dead) are kept functional because the person is kept on a ventilator that artificially delivers oxygen into the lungs. However, this is NOT life support because the human being has already died. Thus, 2 references to “life support” in USA TODAY’s 6/15/13 should have been edited. They can still be amended.

The pathway to consenting for organ donation is no longer ambiguous. Each state has its own donor registry. Enrollment now represents legal consent for donation and removes a potentially difficult decision from being your family’s responsibility in the case of your death (at a very difficult and vulnerable time). If you really want to be a donor, please take this step. Only 45% of eligible donors in this country have done so thus far even though 90% of people say they believe organ donation is the right thing to do. Let’s do better.

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