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Treatments & Procedures

Organ Transplantation

What is organ donation and transplantation?

Organ donation is the process of surgically removing an organ or tissue from one person (the organ donor) and placing it into another person (the recipient). Transplantation is necessary because the recipient’s organ has failed or has been damaged by disease or injury. Organ transplantation is one of the great advances in modern medicine. Unfortunately, the need for organ donors is much greater than the number of people who actually donate. Every day in the United States 18 people die waiting for an organ and more than 117,000 men, women, and children await life-saving organ transplants.

What organs and tissues can be transplanted?

Organs and tissues that can be transplanted include:

  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Pancreas
  • Heart
  • Lung
  • Intestine
  • Cornea
  • Middle ear
  • Skin
  • Bone
  • Bone marrow
  • Heart valves
  • Connective tissue

Who can be an organ donor?

People of all ages should consider themselves potential donors. When an individual dies, they are evaluated for donor suitability given their current and past medical history as well as their age. The Organ Procurement Agency determines medical suitability for donation.

How can I become an organ donor?

Individuals who wish to be organ donors should complete the following steps:

  • You might join a donor registry. A registry is more than just an expression of interest in becoming a donor. It is a way to legally give consent for the anatomical gift of organs, tissue, and eyes. Each time you go to your local Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV), you will be asked, "do you want to make an anatomical gift?" All you have to do is say "Yes." You can also join the registry at any time by filling out a "Document of Gift" form from the BMV. For more information, go to www.lifebanc.org and click on donor registry. Donor registry information for any state might be obtained from www.donatelife.org.
  • Sign and carry an organ donor card. This card can be downloaded at: www.organdonor.gov.
  • Let your family members and loved ones know your desire to be a donor.
  • You might also want to tell your family health care provider, lawyer, and religious leader that you would like to be a donor.

By becoming an organ donor, does this mean that I wouldn't be eligible to receive the best medical care possible?

Not at all, your decision to donate does not affect the quality of the medical care you will receive.

Are there any costs to the organ donor's family for donation?

There is no cost to the donor’s family or estate for the donation of organs, tissue, or eyes. Funeral costs remain the responsibility of the family.

Will donation disfigure the body?

The recovery of organs, tissue, and eyes is a surgical procedure performed by trained medical professionals. Generally, the family may still have a traditional funeral service

If I need an organ or tissue transplant, what do I need to do?

If you need a transplant, you need to get on the national waiting list. To get on the list, you need to visit a transplant hospital. To find a transplant hospital near you, visit the web site: www.unos.org. This site is the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), and every transplant hospital in the United States is a member.

The transplant hospital's doctors will examine you and decide if you are a good transplant candidate. In addition to criteria developed for some organ types by UNOS, each transplant hospital has their own criteria for accepting candidates for transplant. If the hospital's transplant team determines you are a good transplant candidate, they will add you to the national waiting list. You can get on the waiting list at more than one transplant hospital and UNOS policies do permit "multiple listing".  However, be sure to check each transplant hospital's rules about listing at other hospitals.

Next, you wait. There's no way to know how long you will wait to receive a donor organ. Your name will be added to the pool of names. When an organ becomes available, all the patients in the pool are assessed to determine compatibility.

What organization actually manages the distribution of organs and what is the process to receive an organ or tissue?

UNOS maintains the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). Through the UNOS Organ Center, organ donors are matched to waiting recipients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When an organ becomes available, the local organ procurement organization (OPO) sends medical and genetic information to UNOS. UNOS then generates a list of potential recipients. This list is a computer-generated ranking based on such factors as blood type, tissue type, organ size, medical urgency of the patient’s illness, time already spent on the waiting list, and geographical distance between the donor and the recipient. The organ is offered first to the transplant center with the candidate who is the best match. The transplant team decides if it will accept or refuse the organ based on established medical criteria and other factors including staff and patient availability, and organ transportation. If the transplant center refuses the organ, the transplant center of the next patient on the list is contacted and the process continues until the organ is placed. Organs are distributed locally first, and if no match is found, they are offered regionally and then nationally.

What's involved with becoming a living organ donor?

A living donation, such as the donation of one healthy kidney or a segment of a healthy liver from a living human being to another, is arranged though the individual transplant centers according to criteria they have in place. An Independent Donor Advocate will represent the interests and well-being of the potential living donor.

What organizations can I contact to learn more about organ donation and transplantation?

Organ Registration and Donation
General Information, Education, Other Resources
Specific Organ Associations/Organizations

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Can't find the health information you’re looking for?

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/21/2013...#11750