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How an Organ Is Deemed Recoverable for Donation

August 19, 2015

Across the country doctors performed more than 29,500 organ transplants last year.

These surgeries would not have been possible without donations from thousands of Americans. But unfortunately, many men, women and children still await organ transplants. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 123,000 people are on that list.

As I pointed out in many people hold myths about the organ donation process that often keeps them from registering as donors. One of the biggest myths is that doctors won’t treat you aggressively and try to save your life if they know you are an organ donor.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I think it’s important for people to understand how we determine if organs are recoverable, especially after someone experiences a major accident, cardiac arrest or other serious health issue. Understanding these facts hopefully encourage anyone reading this and others to donate.

Organ Recovery Explained

We don’t even consider organ donation unless we’ve exhausted all lifesaving measures. There are two processes for organ donation.  Donation after Cardiac Death (DCD) and Donation after Brain Death. In the case of DCD, two physicians and the patient’s family, “legal next of kin” or designated healthcare representative must make the decision to stop lifesaving measures and withdraw life support. Only after the decision is made, do we discuss organ donation with a patient’s family.

Working with a local organ donation organization, we assess every potential donor to see if their organs are viable for a transplant. In cases of cardiac arrest, if a person has an irreversible neurological injury, end stage musculoskeletal disease, pulmonary disease or high spinal cord injury, their organs may be suitable for donation. Donation after Cardiac Death” accounts for 10-20% of all organs recovered for transplantation. With DCD, many of the body’s vital organs can’t be used for organ donation but tissues, such as the bones, corneas, heart valves and skin, can be donated within 24 hours.

The most organ donations occur after “brain death,” defined as the total and irreversible loss of brain function and activity. This usually occurs after a catastrophic brain injury caused by an accident or illness.

Two doctors who aren’t part of the transplant team will perform a thorough clinical assessment of the patient to determine brain death. Though organs usually are donated under these circumstances, this situation often is the most difficult for families because their loved one still looks the same and appears to be breathing, but this is just the machines working. Though the brain no longer functions, other organs still work as long as a breathing machine continues to operate.   If a patient is not a registered donor, the family and /or next of kin is approached to request consent for organ gifting/donating.  If the patient is a registered organ donor, the family and/or next of kin will be notified.  Since the decision was already made by the consenting patient, consent by the family and or next of kin is not required.

We greatly need organ donors, but everyone should understand the process before they register. Organ donation is a huge gift and it literally saves another person’s life. If you are interested in learning more about organ donation, please visit Translife’s website.

My passion for organ donation advocacy led me to start my organization, Gr8 to Don8. We partner with high schools and colleges to educate, and hold an annual 8K charity run in the Longwood area. Click here to learn more.