I often get questions about Organ Donation provisions in Medical Directives and funeral instructions. Having witnessed a kidney donation in my family last summer, I thought our clients may be interested in how organ donation works both in life and after death, how decisions about organ donation are made, and what they should do to make informed decisions about their own wishes.
Lifetime organ donations help friends, loved ones, or strangers live healthier and longer lives. As with many aspects of estate planning, giving after death is much easier than in life. Once a person dies, he or she can save and improve the lives of many others by giving away organs and tissues left behind.
What organs can be donated?
‘Organ donation’ includes both organs and tissues. With regard to organs, living donors can donate one kidney or part of a liver. Deceased donors can give a heart, two kidneys, pancreas, liver, two lungs and intestines. Tissues include body parts such as cornea, skin, heart valves, bone, blood vessels and things like bone marrow, stem cells, umbilical cord blood, blood vessels, and blood. Some of these tissues can be donated in life and others only after death. Common operations like ACL repair often use tendons donated by organ donors. Skin grafts from burn victims can be donated by almost anyone upon their passing.
Who can donate
The health history of a donor determines which organs or tissues could be donated. Generally organs are donated by younger donors and those who pass away suddenly in such a way that preserves the organs. Tissues can be donated by most any age.
How the process works
Living donors must pass a series of tests to prove their organs are compatible with the recipient. For donations after death, a patient must be declared brain dead before any organs or tissues are taken. Brain death is determined by a series of medical tests. In every case, The donor must give consent. In Virginia, a drivers license can give a general organ donor authorization. JGB’s health care power of attorney form authorizes your agent to make organ donation decisions on your behalf in the event there is any question as to your wishes. Once a person is brain dead and consent is given, then the medical team can assess which organs and/or tissues could help other people. Matches are determined by objective criteria of need (see the UNOS link below). The tissues are neither bought nor sold and all costs are paid by the recipient and their insurance. Their is no cost to the donor.
I have heard many people worry that their medical team might either artificially extend or prolong their life to facilitate organ donation. In fact, your doctor owes a duty to you and not to anyone else. Further, it is always important to name a Health Care Agent in your own Health Care Power of Attorney who will advocate for you in every step of your treatment.
Another common concern is that one’s religion frowns upon organ donation. While you should always seek the advice from your religious leader regarding your faith, most faiths support organ donation and consider the act a final act of sacrifice for the good of another.
Finally, many worry that organ donation precludes an open-casket funeral. In practice, this is not the case.
How can I donate?
If you want to donate organs or tissues upon your passing, there are three important things to do:
1)Tell your family and Health Care Agent how you feel. Leave written instructions in your Estate Planning binder
2)At the DMV, be sure your Drivers License shows you as an organ donor
3)You can register to be a donor at www.registerme.org.
To learn more about organ donation, talk to your primary care provider. There are good resources on the internet such as www.organdonor.gov (published by the US Dep’t of Health and Human Services) and www.unos.org (the United Network for organ sharing). Be sure to discuss your wishes with your loved ones. It is always a good idea to make sure your doctor and estate lawyer have your wishes documented in their file as well.