Written by: Shani Fowler
Benjamin Franklin once said that there are only two things certain in life – taxes and death. Whilst we are all too readily prepared to talk and moan about our taxes we rarely broach the subject of death. We prefer to just get on with our lives and push the fact that we die to the back of our mind, we don’t want to dwell on it. All hoping that we will live to a ripe old age and quietly slip off our mortal coil in our rocking chairs without too much fuss. But life unfortunately does not end like that for a lot of people. Life is unpredictable, erratic and can often deliver the unexpected.
Whilst it is probably not healthy to think about death too much we do need to convey what our wishes are in the event of death, not only in terms of funerals but if we died and our organs could be used – would it be our wish to have them donated? Whilst the majority of us finding ourselves in a medical situation which would benefit from donation would be happy to receive a donated organ – the same cannot be said of willingness to give.
What is organ donation?
Organ donation is the gift of an organ, usually from the deceased (though kidney donation and sections of liver have been transplanted from live patients). The organs are given to people who can use the organ to either enhance and improve their lives or save their lives entirely. Although it is viewed as a pretty new concept the first transplant to take place was a kidney transplant in 1954 and a heart transplant first took place in 1967. Many organs and tissues can also be donated. Most patients that are able to donate are the ones who are on ventilation after suffering perhaps brain haemorrhages or a stroke; these donors are classed as heart-beating donors. Patients which die not on ventilation, can still in some circumstances have other organs donated. These donors are called non heart-beating donors. Hearts can deteriorate rapidly and are usually donated by a heart-beating donor; both donor types can usually donate corneas and other tissue. Approximately 3000 donation operations take place in the United Kingdom every year.
Alleviating the worries of donation
People have many reservations of organ donation and are afraid of committing to giving their organs for many reasons:-
What if you are not really dead? – People worry that their organs or the organs of their loved ones will be whipped out and they are not really dead. Death is pronounced by a consultant who would be entirely independent of a team in charge of any transplant. The consultant confirms death in exactly the same way whether organ donation is occurring or not. For patients on a ventilator, death is diagnosed by two experienced doctors by strict standard procedural brain stem testing. If brain stem death has occurred, machines won’t keep the patient alive but the ventilator keeps the heart pumping to circulate the blood and this keeps the organs alive and good condition for transplantation.
Will the doctors save me if they see I could save many? – This is a very good question. It causes concern to potential donors that if they are on the register they might be viewed as “parts” to save others over themselves. Health professionals have a duty of care to save your life and it is only when their best efforts fail could you be considered for donation.
Will they take parts which have not been agreed to? Only the parts can be removed for which consent has been given. So if you have not consented to the donation of your eyes for example they will not be used.
Will the body be disfigured from organ removal? – People worry that they won’t be able to see a loved one after organ removal. The operation to remove any organ is undertaken with the utmost respect and the surgery is performed as though on a live patient and wounds stitched and dressed afterwards. The deceased’s body can still usually be viewed afterwards if requested.
Why should we donate?
Three people per day die whilst on the transplant list awaiting a suitable donor. It is anticipated that with the rise of an ageing population the number of transplants required will increase, but the organs available for transplantation has remained static over the last five years. Only a small number of people actually die in circumstances where donation could take place. This is why it is a good idea to register and/or convey your wishes to family members regarding donation as there is likely to be many deaths which occur where donation could take place and thus more lives could be saved.
How do you become a donor?
Becoming a donor is a personal choice, one where once armed with the correct facts may be made easier. You can indicate your wish to donate in a few different ways. You can be added to the database for The NHS Organ Donor Register and register your wish to donate in the event of your death. You can specify what you want to donate by ticking the appropriate boxes on the form. You will be joining 16 million others on the database who have made the same decision. There is no upper age limit.
Carrying a donor card
You don’t need to carry a donor card but carrying a donor card is another way to convey your wishes and you can also state on the card what it is you wish to donate. Also you could ensure that your family are aware of your wish to donate, so should you die they don’t have to wonder what it is you would have wanted to do. Losing a family member, especially if it is sudden is already devastating but being at least aware of your wishes would make the question of donation easier. Also you can change your mind and be removed from the register if you decide you no longer wish to donate for whatever reason.
There is no greater gift
Becoming an organ donor is a special and generous act. It isn’t something everyone wants to think about but we really should. Imagine the boot on the other foot and you being a recipient and being eternally grateful that someone had made sure their wish to donate was granted and saved your life or that of your child. There is no greater gift than that of life and to bequeath life from our deaths can be our lasting legacy.