As a cardiothoracic surgeon, I’ve seen firsthand how an organ donation can literally give someone back their life. While we’ve come up with incredible ways to keep people alive even when they have an ailing heart, nothing comes close to a human heart donation. And it’s not just heart donations that change lives. Kidneys, lungs, livers, even eyes and skin, can all transform the lives of people who would otherwise be consigned to lifelong disease and even death. Because donated organs can be so transformative, I want to spend some time debunking a few of the myths that often hold people back from becoming organ donors.
If I’m An Organ Donor, They’ll Just Let Me Die
When I talk to people about organ donation, this is the myth I hear most often. People think that being an organ donor means that doctors and medical personnel won’t work as hard to save your life so they can get your organs sooner. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you’re sick in the hospital, your team’s number one priority is to keep you alive and healthy. Let me repeat, every doctor who takes care of you is one hundred percent focused on your health, not on harvesting your organs. Most of the time, the team doesn’t even know you’re an organ donor until your death is inevitable or you’ve already passed away. That’s because a completely different team comes in to handle the donation. The wheels of organ donation don’t start turning until your organs have done all they can to keep you alive.
I’m Too Old to Be a Donor
This is another biggie. Lots of people think their organs are useless once they hit their 50s and 60s, but your organs actually have a lot of life left. While your organs might not all be useable, many of them still will be. Transplant teams will look over your health records and figure out which organs are the most likely to benefit someone in need of a life-saving transplant. In fact, there’s no cutoff age for organ donation. Carlton was 93 when he passed away and successfully donated his organs to a 69-year-old woman in need. You’re never too old to save a life when it comes to organ donation.
I’m Too Sick to Be a Donor
Another misperception I see in many of the patients I take care of is that they’re too sick to donate organs. But just one part of your body isn’t doing so well doesn’t mean none of it is. You might have severe heart disease, for example, but have perfectly healthy kidneys, eyes, liver, lungs, or even skin. Like I said with age, it’s best to let the transplant specialists decide what you can and can’t donate.
My Body Will Be Horribly Disfigured
Many people think that organ donation means you won’t be able to have an open casket funeral, but the surgeons and funeral specialists who remove your organs are very good at hiding the effects of organ removal. People are normally dressed in clothes for an open casket, which will hide any incisions that were made. Rods are put in place of bones that might have been removed and glass eyes can fill in if corneas or other parts of the eye needed to be removed. I’ve been to the funeral of an organ donor and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference.
I Won’t Be Dead When They Try to Harvest My Organs
There’s a widespread fear I’ve heard from many that they’ll still be alive when their organs get harvested. I think this myth has gained notoriety because it’s a popular subject in TV shows, movies, and tabloid newspapers. While it makes for a creepy film plot or a flashy headline, it doesn’t reflect the reality of organ donation. In all cases, testing is done to make sure not only that a person has stopped breathing, but that their heart has stopped beating and often that their brain is no longer showing signs of life either. This testing verifies beyond a doubt that the donor is dead and ready to give their organs to save the lives of others.
My Organs Will be Donated After I Die If I Register as a Donor
So let’s say you’re ready to give a life-saving donation put “organ donor” on your driver’s license. That’s all you need to do, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a few situations where an individual who was an organ donor never ended up giving because their family blocked the process. Often times, the donor had never discussed their plans with their family or made it clear to them why they felt it was important. If you’d like to be an organ donor, it’s extremely important to let your family know your plans and reasoning so there’s no shock when the transplant team arrives soon after your death. It’s also important to make your wishes clear in your advance directive, will, and living will. Finally, tell you doctor about your plans and, if you’re a religious person and you think your loved ones might have religious concerns, talk through the choice with a faith leader so they can answer any questions you or they might have.
Organ donation is life-saving for the thousands of people who receive donations every year. As I hope you’ve seen, there’s no reason to be scared of organ donation or to think you don’t qualify. If you’re interested or still have concerns, check out organdonor.gov and talk to your doctor about becoming an organ donor. If you’d like to register, check out your state’s website and see what the process is for changing your license.