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Organ donation: Facts vs. fiction

April 23, 2019 | UCI Health
women standing on beach after organ donation

Organ donation saves lives. Yet some people are reluctant to consider donating because of persistent inaccurate information about how the process works.

“Some people are hesitant because of negative connotations surrounding organ donation that are simply not true,” said Dr. Cristobal Barrios Jr., a UCI Health surgeon who specializes in trauma and critical care.

End-of-life issues are near and dear to me because so many could people be helped if everyone had accurate information about organ donation.”

The need for organ donations

Although more than 36,500 transplants were performed in the United States in 2018, with an average of 95 each day, the need far outstrips the available organ donations. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • More than 113,000 people in the United States were on a waiting list for a life-saving organ transplant as of January 2019.
  • Every 10 minutes, someone new is added to the national waiting list.
  • Every day, at least 20 people on the waiting list die because an organ they need is not available for transplant.
  • About 95% of U.S. adults surveyed say they support organ donations, yet only 58% actually sign up to become donors.
  • Only three in 1,000 people die in such a way as to allow for organ donation.

Each year, the number of people on the waiting list continues to exceed both the number of donors and total transplants.

Despite efforts to increase awareness about the need and the process, myths surrounding organ donation persist.

Misconceptions about organ donation

Some of the most common misconceptions about – and objections to – to organ donation include:

  • The perception that physicians are waiting for loved ones to die in order to recover their organs
  • That doctors and nurses won’t work as hard to save the life of a person who is registered as an organ donor
  • That loved ones feel pain or may still be alive when organs are removed
  • That loved ones deemed potential organ donors could still pull through and survive
  • Religious concerns
  • A closed casket is the only option after a person has donated an organ or tissue

Facts about organ donation

OneLegacy, the nonprofit, federally-designated organ recovery organization, works with hospital systems such as UCI Heath to support families who make the decision to honor their loved ones by donating life-saving organs and healing tissues for those in need.

Here are the facts:

  • The organ donation process does not begin until every attempt has been made to save a patient’s life.
  • A patient must be declared legally dead before a donation can proceed.
  • OneLegacy representatives work with families to discuss donation decisions. Surgeons and physicians are not involved.
  • Physicians must follow a formal process to recover organs. They are not waiting for patients to die.
  • Deceased donors do not feel any pain during organ recovery.
  • Most major religious groups support organ and tissue donations.
  • Organ procurement organizations treat each donor with the utmost respect and dignity, allowing a donor’s body to be viewed in an open casket funeral whenever possible.

Organ donation by the numbers

According to OneLegacy, one person’s donation of:

  • Organs could save up eight lives
  • Corneas could give sight to two people
  • Tissue could heal up to 75 people

Waiting list by the numbers

According to OneLegacy, of the more than 113,000 people on the waiting list for an organ transplant:

  • More than 2,000 are children under age 18
  • Two out of three are at least age 50
  • More than 83% are awaiting a kidney

The impact of organ donation

The decision to donate sometimes provides grieving donor families with a sense of purpose and comfort, says Barrios, a professor of surgery at UCI School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery.

“We approach organ donation very seriously at UCI Health. The patient is treated respectfully during their entire journey, even after death. Family members are not pressured and are given time to make decisions surrounding their loved one’s death.”

Spiritual care is also offered, he says.

Early in his medical career, Barrios worked in a hospice center where end-of-life issues were a daily occurrence.

“It is a difficult thing to deal with. However, the truth is, that when you choose to donate organs after death, real hope and something positive can come out of tragedy.”

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