In most states, you can use your health care directive, to express your wishes about donating your organs, tissues, or body after death.
If you already know whether you want to be an organ donor—or have already made arrangements to donate your organs, or body, you can skip to "Making Your Wishes Known," below. However, if you are not yet certain whether you want to be a donor, the following information may help you make your decision.
Although the number of organ donations has been steadily and slowly rising, the need for organs still far exceeds the number of organs donated. More than 121,500 people are currently waiting for lifesaving organ transplant surgery. Based on current rates of donation, 22 people will die each day waiting for an organ. In some cases, a single organ donor can save as many as eight lives. (For the latest statistics, visit www.organdonor.gov.)
Most major religions support organ donation. Reverence for life is the basis for almost all religious traditions, and organ donation is viewed as a lifesaving act of compassion and generosity. Donated organs must be removed immediately after death, however, and some religions strongly believe that a deceased person's body should remain undisturbed for a number of days. For the practitioner of a religion that holds both of these views—such as many types of Buddhism—a dilemma may arise. On one hand, it is beneficial and compassionate to donate organs, while on the other, it may violate the body. If you are uncertain about the right choice for you, it may be helpful to discuss the issue with your religious or spiritual adviser. For a brief statement of different religions' views on organ donation, see "Religious Perspectives" on the website of TransLife, www.translife.org.
It will not cost your family anything if you want to donate your organs. The recipient pays the expenses, usually through insurance.
Before an organ is removed from a donor, doctors who are not involved in the procedure must certify that the patient is deceased. The body is then kept on a respirator to keep blood flowing through the organ until it can be removed and given to a waiting recipient. All of this usually takes about 24 hours. Donation does not disfigure the body and does not interfere with having a funeral, even an open-casket service.
Your health care directive is a good place to state your wishes regarding organ donation. You may have the following options:
If you want to be a donor, there are a few more steps you can take to be sure your wishes are carried out.
First, if your state offers a donor card—for example, a card or sticker that accompanies your driver's license—it's a good idea to obtain it and fill it out. It can alert others to your wishes in the event of an accident, when your health care documents may not be immediately available.
Second, many states now have donor registries, where you can sign up to donate any usable organs or tissues at your death. These registries, which are run by the state or by a nonprofit organization, provide computerized, confidential lists to authorized medical personnel 24 hours a day. You can check the Internet to see whether a donation registry is available in your state.
Finally, and most important, you should discuss your views about organ donation with your health care agent, close relatives, and friends. Even if you've put your wishes in your health care directive and filled out a separate donor card, it's possible that an objection by a close family member could defeat your wishes after death. The best thing you can do is let those close to you know that you feel strongly about donating your organs.