Understanding Organ Donation

Knowledge Database

Trauma Scene/Cause of Death - Most organ donors are victims of accidents that cause fatal head injuries. Car wrecks, in which drivers or passengers aren’t wearing seat belts, or gun shot wounds are both common examples.

A highly specialized medical team of paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMT’s) begin life-saving efforts at the accident scene. They communicate with emergency room doctors during transport to the hospital.

Doctors and nurses have advanced life-support equipment ready when the ambulance or helicopter arrives. They evaluate injuries and continue life saving measures including a respirator (breathing machine), IV fluid and blood replacement, and drugs to help the heart keep beating. When the patient’s vital signs stabilize, he is transferred to an intensive care unit (ICU).

A doctor does special test to see how much damage has been done to the brain and body. During these test, the medical team continues advanced life-support treatment.

If a patient is in a coma, tests show brain activity and blood flowing through the brain. But, if tests show no blood supply to the brain, it is completely destroyed and can never work again. If all tests show the brain is no longer alive, the doctor tells the family the patient has died.

A specially trained nurse from the organ donation center goes to the hospital to see if the patient is medically suitable to be an organ donor. Even after the patient dies, the ventilator provides oxygen to the major organs until the family decided about donation.

After telling the family the patient has died, the medical team explains organ donation. The family is given time to decide. This decision is much easier if the family had already discussed organ donation at home before. Once the donation decision is made, the family can make funeral plans. Only now is a patient called a “donor”. All hospital costs from this point are paid by the organ donation center.

The donor’s blood type, size and hospital are entered into a national database to find patients awaiting transplants that best match the donor’s heart, lung, liver, kidneys and pancreas. Recipients for corneas (eyes), skin and bone can be found later.

Each recipient’s surgical team comes to the hospital to remove the donor’s organ for their patient. Like other operations, this surgery takes place in an operating room. Organs are taken to the transplant center.

After donation, the donor is taken to a funeral home. The funeral home is not delayed. The family can even have an open casket funeral if they want, because the person looks the same as before.

About two weeks later, the donor’s family receives a letter from the donation center telling where organs and tissues went and some information about the people who receive them. Names of donors and recipients are kept confidential. Donor families can get updates about recipients any time by calling the donation center. They usually enjoy getting letters from recipients, so they know how the patients are doing.