When it comes to organ donation, you’ll find a lot of myths, misgivings and misinformation out there. Aneesha Shetty, MD, a nephrologist with Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, and Kristin Pedersen, the associate director of solid organ transplant at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, help uncover the truth.
Myth: If I am an organ donor and I get admitted to the hospital with a serious illness, the doctors aren’t going to try as hard to save my life.
Fact: “In the medical profession, we’re here to save lives, not to take them,” Dr. Shetty said. In addition, there are many rules, stops, checks and balances in place that separate your medical care from your interest in donating your organs. And the team that takes care of you as a patient and the team that evaluates and processes organ donations are separate.
Myth: If I register as an organ donor, I don’t need to talk to my family about my decision.
Fact: It’s important for you to have a conversation with your loved ones about your wishes and why you would like to donate your organs, so everyone understands what you want.
If you’ve listed your intent to donate your organs on your driver’s license, your decision is legally binding and medically valid. But practically, it can become a challenging situation. In some cases, families refuse to allow their loved one’s organs to be removed.
“It becomes an extremely disruptive and emotional situation. Even if the team is supposed to take out the organs, they will back off from a family that’s mourning,” Dr. Shetty said. “They have the legal right to remove the organs, but it would create so much trauma and negativity.”
Myth: If I register to donate my organs, I won’t qualify for certain types of medication or treatment.
Fact: People think organ donors can’t receive treatments such as curative chemotherapy, but that’s not true. If you’re seriously sick or injured, the medical team focuses on helping you recover. Organ donation only comes into play once recovery isn’t possible.
Myth: Donating my organs is against my religion.
Fact: It’s possible that donating your organs is against your religion, but you should have a conversation with your spiritual leader to find out for sure. It’s true that donating organs is against the beliefs of certain religions, including those of some Native American tribes and certain Chinese faiths.
But many people believe that organ donation is forbidden for Catholics, Hindus and Muslims. Some religious leaders will explain that organ donation is acceptable because you’re helping other people. “There may be ways where you can be honest to your faith, and you can still go ahead and donate,” Dr. Shetty said.
Myth: I’m too old or sick to donate my organs.
Fact: “There’s no boundary or limit as far as being too old or too unhealthy to donate,” Pedersen said. And some of your organs might be useful even if others don’t qualify. For example, if you die of heart failure, you may still be able to donate your vessels, tissues or corneas.
Pedersen estimates that nine times out of 10, people qualify to donate something. And whether you qualify isn’t something you need to think about. You can register as a donor, and at the time of your death the medical team will determine what organs and tissues can be donated. Even if you have COVID-19 at the time of your death, you may be able to donate.
Myth: Children can’t donate organs.
Fact: Children under age 18 typically need parental permission to donate their organs, but no one is too young to donate—Dr. Shetty has seen donors as young as 9 months old.
Myth: If I donate my organs, I can’t have an open casket at my funeral.
Fact: Organ removal is done respectfully and designed not to increase loved ones’ trauma. You can still have an open casket if that’s what you prefer.
Myth: Rich and famous people move to the top of the line to receive organs.
Fact: Organs are donated with a matched-based system, and there are a lot of regulations that determine where someone goes on the waiting list. Generally, the sickest people are at the top of the list.
If you know someone waiting for a transplant, though, you can choose directed donation, where you intend that your organs go to a person of your choice.
Myth: My organs can only go to someone who is the same gender or race as I am.
Fact: You can donate to anyone, as long as you’re a match based on blood type and tissue type.
Myth: I can only donate if my organs are a perfect match.
Fact: Only identical twins are perfect matches. But good or acceptable matches can be successful. As mentioned above, two factors determine how well a match might work: blood type and tissue type. Different combinations of blood types can be a match. And tissue types are a unique set of markers, like fingerprints or iris scans. They are all different, but the closer they align, the more likely the donation will succeed.
Myth: An organ recipient can pick up diseases, personality traits or characteristics from a donor.
Fact: Organs are screened for infections and certain cancers, and if there’s even a low risk of transmission, the recipient gets detailed information before they decide whether to go ahead with the transplant.
You won’t develop drug or alcohol abuse if a donor struggled with addiction. A donated organ won’t change your sexual identity. And a donated organ won’t give you characteristics that are stereotypically associated with a certain type of person. For example, a man who receives a heart from a woman won’t become more emotional.
“I’m glad people are open to talking to me about these things, but it doesn’t work that way,” Dr. Shetty said.
The bottom line
Many people who would donate their organs aren’t sure if they can or they should. If you’re considering organ donation, learn the facts so you can make the right decision for yourself and your loved ones.