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Just Curious

I’m an Organ Donor. What Exactly Happens to My Organs After I Die?

By abigail meisel
You may be one of the more than 138 million American adults who are registered as organ donors, but do you know how the donation process really works?

When a patient arrives at an intensive care unit with a severe brain trauma and the situation is dire, the ICU staff will do everything they can to save that patient’s life. In the meantime, the hospital is required to refer the patient as a potential donor to the local organ procurement organization.

The OPO team comes to the hospital to review the patient’s medical chart to verify blood type, record body size, and perform lab tests and imaging scans to ensure that organs and tissues are functioning properly.

“If the patient is declared brain-dead, or if the family decides on their own to withdraw life support, a specialized team of grief coordinators called family services coordinators will discuss the opportunity of donation with the family and obtain consent,” explains Clint Burns, program coordinator for organ and tissue donation at Johns Hopkins Hospital. From this point on, the OPO’s main focus will be to support the donor family. “The family is never left alone,” says Burns, himself the recipient of a liver transplant in 1994. “The family services team is with them on-site 24/7 to answer questions and provide support if needed.”

During this process, the patient remains on a ventilator while the OPO uses a computer algorithm to identify potential recipient candidates through a national database, scanning primarily for blood type and body size, and giving preference to people who are the sickest or who have been on the waiting list the longest. Once a recipient candidate has been identified, that patient’s transplant surgeon will travel to the donor’s location to recover the organ through surgery. If the patient is donating multiple organs, this process could involve multiple surgeons and teams.

Time is now of the essence. “Hearts and lungs can be out of a body the least amount of time, generally no more than four hours,” Burns explains. “A liver or pancreas, generally no more than eight hours. Kidneys can be out of a body the longest period of time, though surgeons would still like that to be less than 24 hours.” Not all donations are as time-critical. Burns explains that certain tissues—including skin, bone, heart valves, and corneas—can be frozen and stored for an extended period of time. “A single donor can help up to 75 people through tissue donation,” Burns says.

The organs are wrapped in triple-barrier plastic to ensure sterility, placed in a container, then into an ice-filled polystyrene box marked “human organ” in red block letters. The surgeon will travel by car, ambulance, or plane—taking the donated organ to provide new life for someone in need.

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