How it Works
Trying to Save a Life:
At some point, a potential donor is admitted to a hospital because of illness or accident. Most donors are victims of severe head trauma, a brain aneurysm or stroke. Healthcare professionals work hard and long, doing everything possible to save the patient's life while maintaining the patient on mechanical devices.
Testing for Brain Death:
When the medical team has exhausted all possible lifesaving efforts and the patient is not responding, a physician will perform a series of tests, usually on multiple occasions, to determine if brain death has occurred. This is usually done by a neurosurgeon or neurologist in compliance with accepted medical practice and state law. Patients who are brain dead have no brain activity and cannot breathe on their own. Brain death is irreversible and is not coma. Brain death is death.
Alerting the OPO:
In compliance with federal regulations, a hospital notifies its local organ procurement organization (OPO) of every patient that has died or is nearing death. A hospital gives the OPO information about the deceased to confirm his or her potential to be a donor. If the patient is a potential candidate for donation, an OPO representative immediately travels to the hospital.
The OPO representative will search the state's donor registry to see if the deceased had enrolled as a donor. If so, that will serve as legal authorization. If the deceased had not registered and there was no other legal authorization for donation, the OPO will seek authorization from the next of kin. When authorization is obtained, medical evaluation will continue, including obtaining the deceased's complete medical and social history from the family.
Matching Donors with Recipients:
If the deceased's evaluation does not rule out donation, the OPO contacts the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to begin the search for matching recipients. A computer program matches donor organs with recipients based on blood type, tissue type, height, and weight, length of time the patient has been waiting, the severity of the patient's illness and the distance between the donor's and the recipient's hospitals. The list does not reference race, gender, income or social status.
Maintaining the Donor:
Meanwhile at the hospital, the donor is maintained on artificial support and the condition of each organ is carefully monitored by the hospital medical staff and the OPO procurement coordinator.
Recovering and Transporting Organs:
The OPO representative arranges the arrival and departure times of the transplant surgical teams. After the surgical team arrives, the donor is taken to the operating room where organs and tissues are recovered in the same sterile and careful way as in any surgery. All incisions are surgically closed and usually do not interfere with open-casket funeral.
The transplant operation takes place after the transport team arrives at the recipient hospital with the new organ. Typically the transplant recipient is already at the hospital and may be in the operating room awaiting the arrival of the lifesaving organ. Surgical teams work around the clock as needed to transplant the new organs into the waiting recipients.
The families of all donors are offered grief support through a Bereavement Aftercare Program.
If a doctor has determined a transplant is needed, their patient will be added to the national waiting list. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) maintains the only national patient waiting list and features the most comprehensive data available in any single field of medicine. The OPTN's secure transplant information database contains all national data on the candidate waiting list, organ donation and matching, and transplantation. This system is critical in helping organ transplant institutions match waiting candidates with donated organs. Institutions also rely on the database to manage time-sensitive, life-critical data of all candidates, before and after their transplants. Patients are matched to organs based on a number of factors including blood and tissue typing, medical need, time on the waiting list, and geographical location.
Organ and tissue donation doesn't interfere with having an open-casket funeral. The donor's body is clothed for burial, so there are no visible signs of organ or tissue donation. Through the entire donation process, the body is treated with care, dignity and respect.
The decision to donate is confidential, and we are dedicated to maintaining that confidence. At the time of donation, the anonymity of the process is explained and the opportunity to meet recipients is not promised. If the mutual desire of both the donor family and recipients is to meet, the organ procurement organization can coordinate the exchange of letters and a meeting.