What Does It Mean When You Check the Organ Donor Box?

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What Does It Mean When You Check the Organ Donor Box?

It’s probably uncomfortable to think about: What happens to your body if something happens to you? But for the more than 120,000 people on the transplant waiting list, your choice to donate your organs can be a life-and-death matter.

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By becoming a donor, you could help one of the more than 108,000 people who need a kidney transplant or one of the 15,000 who need a lung transplant. And the list goes on.

“Donors don’t need to have perfect health,” says Christine Chambers, donation coordinator for Cleveland Clinic. “People of all ages, races and ethnicities can save lives by donating their organs, eyes and tissues.”

Understanding the benefits to those on the transplant list is the easy part. But what exactly does it mean when you become a donor? Ms. Chambers answers some frequently asked questions to help you make this important decision.

Q: What happens when you die or are close to death?

A: When a person is near death or has died, hospitals are required to notify the local organ procurement organization (OPO). A representative checks the state registry or has the patient’s driver’s license checked to see if the patient is a donor. If the answer is yes, here’s how it works:

  • Organ donors are medically evaluated, and if the evaluation doesn’t rule out donation, a search begins for matching patients who need organs.
  • Each organ gets offered to the first person on the list and the transplant surgeon for that person determines if the organ is medically suitable. With 75 percent of organs going to local patients, there’s a good chance you would be helping someone in your own community, Ms. Chambers says.
  • The OPO schedules the surgical transplant teams and arranges for transfer of the organs.
  • Surgeons recover organs first, then bone, cornea and skin.
  • Incisions are surgically closed.

Q: How does it affect your family if you become a donor?

A: A representative from the OPO will ask for the donor’s medical and social history at the time of the donor’s death.

“It’s important to let your family and loved ones know about your decision in advance,” says Ms. Chambers.

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Having the discussion beforehand can help prepare them and avoid any additional distress or confusion during an already emotional time. In fact, many transplant organizations recommend that organ donors not only tell their family and loved ones, but also help create awareness about becoming a donor and encourage others to do the same.

Q: Are there any age or health restrictions for becoming a donor?

A: Parents must give consent for those under the age of 18 to donate organs, but there are no other age requirements or limitations.

“The primary consideration is what condition the organs or tissue are in, which doctors evaluate at the time of recovery,” Ms. Chambers says.

There are only a few absolute exclusions (active cancer, systemic infection, etc.) for becoming a donor. Those with most other medical conditions can still donate organs or tissue.

Q: Does being a donor limit the type of funeral you can have?

A: No. Incisions are surgically closed after a surgeon removes the organs or tissue, and if preferred, most donors are able to have an open-casket funeral.

Q: Does it matter if you’re from an ethnic minority or whether you’re male or female?

A: Anyone can donate, but there is a special need for donors from minority populations.

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“Organs aren’t matched according to race or ethnicity, but everyone waiting for an organ transplant will have a better chance of receiving one if more people donate,” Ms. Chambers says.

The upshot: It takes very little time — 10 minutes or less — to sign up, but for the people who receive a donor’s organs or tissue those few minutes can make all the difference in the world.

Q: How do you sign up?

A: People living in most states can register as an organ donor online at United Network for Organ Sharing.

The process is simple, and you’ll just need your state driver’s license information. You also can sign up when you get or renew your driver’s license or obtain a state ID. In some states, you can indicate directly on your driver’s license that you wish to donate by checking a box and having two witnesses sign your license.

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