First published 18 July 2018 • Updated 19 July 2018
Organ donation helps millions of people worldwide, whether through saving their lives or treating long-term serious health conditions. If you want the opportunity to help others in this way after your death, you can register to become an organ donor (In the UK this is an opt-in process). If you’re pondering whether or not to do this, you can find out more about the organ donation process here.
Which organs can you donate?
A number of organs in the human body can be transplanted from one person to another to help them live a healthier and more comfortable life. The kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine can all be donated, helping people with life-threatening illnesses live for longer.
You can also donate tissue, such as skin, bones, tendons, heart valves, arteries and even eyes. These types of donations can be used to treat severe burns, major limb injuries, heart conditions and visual impairment. In this way, a single person can help a large number of other people after their death, and treat a huge variety of diseases and afflictions.
How do donations work?
To ensure that you can be a donor after death, you should join the NHS Organ Donation Register. You can donate if you’re not on the register, but you will need to have told a close family member or friend that you’d like to donate your organs, otherwise consent won’t be assumed.
Organs must be transplanted very quickly after you’ve died, so doctors can only carry out a donation if you die in hospital.
You can also donate some organs, or part of them, and tissue while you’re still living. For example, you can donate one of your kidneys, parts of your liver, some bone that would otherwise be discarded after hip replacement surgery, or part of your placenta after you give birth (this is useful for treating difficult-to-heal wounds). Doctors will only do living donations if it is highly likely that it will not negatively impact your health.
Do I need to opt-in to donate my organs?
The law still states that you must opt-in to donate your organs, and even if the law is changed it will take a long time to switch to a different system. That means you must register if you’d like to donate your organs. You can do this online through the NHS Organ Donation website, or by phoning the organisation directly. When you register, you have the chance to choose whether you’d like to donate all your organs or just some.
You should also discuss your wishes to donate your organs with your family, because doctors will look for their support before carrying out a transplant. Although your family cannot legally stop your organ donation, talking about what you’d like to happen to your body after you pass away may help them come to terms with your decision. Doctors can also ask your family or a close friend if they can use your organs if you haven’t registered your wishes.
If you’re unsure whether you want to donate your organs, you can nominate a representative to make the decision for you when you pass away.
Are any religions against organ donation?
Most religions support organ donation and view it as a noble act of giving. In general, it is seen as a personal choice that the individual should make based on their own beliefs. If you’re concerned that registering to donate your organs might be against your religion, you should speak to your religious leader.
After your organs have been donated, your body will be returned to your family so they can make arrangements for a funeral. Donating your organs shouldn’t affect how quickly your body is returned.
Are there any problems with organ donation?
Your organs will also be assessed to make sure they are working properly before they are given to someone else. If they can’t be donated, they may be used for research instead, which can help save lives in another way.
Remember that the request for your organs to be donated will happen very soon after the moment of your death, or shortly before, so this will be a very difficult time for your loved ones. You should therefore ensure that you have already made the decision about donating, so that they don’t have to. If you have registered as a donor, doctors will go ahead with a transplant even if your family object, but it will be much easier on everyone concerned if you have talked the issue through with them first.
When it comes to live organ donation, lots of people are worried that donating their organs or tissue will cause them health issues. Doctors must always put your health first and won’t suggest a donation if it is going to have a significant impact on your health.
I want to leave my body for medical research. Can I donate my organs too?
You won’t be able to donate your organs and also leave your body for medical research. The only exception is if you’ve only donated your corneas.
For some families, knowing that their loved one has saved lives and helped the treatment of many other people in need is the ultimate living memorial, and can greatly help with the grieving process. Organ donation may be the last thing you ever do, but it will probably be the best thing too.