THE BLOG

Be an Everyday Superhero: Saving a Life Is Easier Than It Sounds

04/29/2015 10:36 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

People tend to think that superheroes have magic powers, but ordinary mortals have the power to save lives too -- no cape required. Donating an organ is one of the most powerful things you can do to save a life. April is Donate Life Month and there are two different types of organ donation: deceased donation and living donation. One deceased donor can save the lives of up to eight individuals! Living donors can donate a kidney, part of the liver and lung, and bone marrow. Living donations of segments of the small intestine and portions of the pancreas tail are also possible, but rare, as they may carry more than average risk.

Currently, there's a shortage of available organs for transplant. There are more than 123,000 people waiting for organs, more than 101,000 of whom are waiting for kidneys. Over the past decade, there have been approximately 17,000 kidney transplants performed each year, from both living and deceased donors. In an effort to demystify the process and encourage more Americans to become donors, here are answers to 10 of the most frequently asked questions about organ donation.

  1. Who can become an organ or tissue donor? People of all different ages are able to donate. Typically, organ donors can range in age from newborn to over 65. If you're considering becoming a living donor and donating a kidney, I've written a three-part blog series with some of the key information you should know before, during and after donation. If you would like to become a deceased donor, it's important to designate it on your driver's license and join your state registry to document your wishes about donation. You can also write this into your healthcare living will if you have one. Letting your family or other loved ones know about your decision is also very important. That's because family members are often asked to give consent for a loved one's donation, so it's important that they know your wishes.
  2. How are organs and tissues for transplant obtained?
    Many organs and tissues are donated by individuals at the time of their death. Others are donated by living donors who choose to give an organ to someone in need. Those who choose to donate a kidney can give through directed donation, to a stranger altruistically by going through a transplant center or hospital in their area, or can participate in a kidney chain by which they give a kidney to a "pool." This allows people to be paired with kidneys even if their donor isn't a match.
  3. Which organs and tissues can be donated after death?
    Six solid organs can be donated: kidneys, lungs, liver, pancreas, heart and intestines. Even the corneas, bones, tendons, skin and heart valves of a deceased donor can be transplanted. If desired, a donor can specify which organs and tissues are to be donated. A person's medical condition at the time of death will indicate which tissues and organs are viable for transplant.
  4. How are organs from deceased donors distributed?
    Generally, donated organs are matched with individuals on an organ waiting list. Matching is based on a variety of factors including blood and tissue types, medical need, length of time on the waiting list and the weight of donor and recipient. Donor organs are matched to waiting recipients by a national computer registry called the National Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). This computer registry is operated by an organization known as the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).
  5. What if I want to donate a kidney to a stranger?
    It's critical to make sure you understand the risks and benefits of donation. The National Kidney Foundation has resources to help you educate yourself and walk you through the process. Consider your reasons for wanting to donate, and the impact of the donation on you and your family. If you decide to pursue donation, you will need to contact transplant centers (hospitals that perform transplant operations) in your area about the possibility of being a living donor. Or, you can contact other organizations that help facilitate living donation.
  6. What if organ and tissue donation is against my religion?
    Religious leaders of most denominations throughout the world favor organ and tissue donation and consider it the greatest humanitarian act. Learn more about how religions view organ donation. If you are concerned, check with your religious leader.
  7. Will my organ donor status affect the care I receive in a hospital or ambulance?
    Organ and tissue donation is not even considered until all possible efforts to save a person's life have been exhausted.
  8. Does it cost money to be an organ donor?
    Deceased donors and their families do not pay for any expenses associated with organ and tissue donation. In living kidney donation, when the donation is to a family member or friend, generally the recipient's insurance will pay for the expenses of testing and surgery. However, the donor might be responsible for travel expenses (if the donor and recipient live in different towns/states) and follow-up care, in addition to lost wages. Since donors are never financially compensated, be sure to ask the financial counselor and/or social worker at the transplant center any questions that you may have about the costs associated with donation. Time off from work and travel expenses are not covered by Medicare or private insurance. However, donors may be eligible for sick leave, state disability and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
  9. Does organ and tissue donation after death cause any disfigurement to the donor?
    Organ removal is a sterile surgical procedure wherein the body remains totally intact. Open casket funerals are still possible, if desired.
  10. Are transplants experimental? Medication and medical advances have resulted in transplant surgeries today that are very successful. In fact, success rates are as high as 95 percent. The transplantation of vital organs has become a routine surgical operation, and is no longer considered experimental.

Next time you're channeling your inner Superman, remember it's within your power to save a life. For more information about organ donation, visit the National Kidney Foundation at www.kidney.org.