Most people know that organ donations save lives and, in fact, more than 90 percent of Americans support organ donation. But only about 50 percent of U.S. adults are actually registered organ and tissue donors, according to a 2019 government survey.
There can be several reasons why someone hasn’t signed up or is hesitant to be an organ donor. So, in honor of National Donor Day on Feb. 14th, Yahoo Life reached out to experts to help clear up some of the myths and misconceptions about organ and tissue donation.
Why is it important to become an organ donor?
“Signing up to become an organ donor is one of the most powerful acts of compassion and generosity that a person can make,” Rick Hasz, Gift of Life Donor Program president and chief executive officer, tells Yahoo Life. “The impact of one donor is tremendous. One organ donor can save up to eight lives and a tissue donor can heal and transform the lives of more than 100 others.”
Gordon Bowen, chief executive officer of the nonprofit organ and tissue recovery organization Lifebanc, tells Yahoo Life that the need for organs “far exceeds the current number of available life-saving gifts. The lack of available organs for transplant is an urgent public health issue.”
There are more than 100,000 children and adults waiting for a life-saving transplant in the U.S., and 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
“Simply stated, the need is great, and you have the power to do something about it, by becoming an organ donor,” says Bowen, who calls organ donation a “selfless act.”
Organs that can be donated include kidneys, pancreas, liver, lungs, heart and intestines. “The majority of people on the transplant waitlist are waiting for kidneys, often related to prevalent conditions like hypertension and diabetes,” explains Hasz.
Tissue donation includes bone “to repair fractures and prevent amputations, skin to heal burn patients, and heart valve donations to repair life-threatening defects,” says Hasz. “Tissue donors can also donate their corneas, which can give the gift of sight to two recipients.”
As Hasz puts it: “Transplants give people a second chance at life, so they can lead active and fulfilling lives, including work, travel, marriage, having children, playing sports and more.”
Here are some common misconceptions that come up around organ and tissue donation:
Myth No. 1: Paramedics won't work as hard to save a patient if they know the patient is an organ donor
Experts emphasize that this fear is unfounded. “When you are sick or injured and admitted to a hospital, the one and only priority is to save your life,” says Hasz. “Organ and tissue donation is not an option until all hope of saving someone has been exhausted. EMTs, doctors and nurses do everything possible to save every patient.”
Bowen also points out that “organ and tissue recovery takes place only after all efforts to save your life are exhausted and death is declared. The doctors and EMTs/paramedics working to save your life are entirely separate from the medical team involved in recovering organs and tissues.”
Myth No. 2: Donating organs and tissue is against their religion
“All major religions approve of organ and tissue donation,” says Bowen, “and consider it one of the highest expressions of compassion and generosity.”
Hasz agrees, adding that donation is “one of the ultimate acts of compassion, humanity and love.”
Donate Life America’s website provides a list of different religions and their views on organ donation. For example, according to Donate Life America, in Judaism, organ donation is “encouraged” and considered “not only an act of kindness, but… also a ‘commanded obligation’ which saves human lives.” In Catholicism, organ donation is viewed as “an acceptable act of kindness in the Roman Catholic Church.” In Hinduism, organ donation is not prohibited by religious law, according to Donate Life.
In addition, organ donation and transplantation is considered to be “Islamically permissible in principle” and when done with “good intention, organ donation may be regarded as a rewarded act of charity,” according to The Fiqh Council of North America. Bowen suggests reaching out to your religious advisor if you have questions or concerns about organ donation.
Myth No. 3: You can’t have an open casket funeral if you donate organs
Organ and tissue donation “does not interfere with an open casket or any other final arrangements,” notes Hasz. “Through the entire donation process, the donor, who is in fact a hero, is treated with ultimate care, respect and dignity.”
Bowen seconds this, explaining that donors are treated with “great dignity and respect throughout the donation process.” He adds: “Skilled surgeons and medical professionals recover organs and tissue in a surgical procedure that does not interfere with customary funeral arrangements. Open-casket visitation, burial, and cremation all can occur.”
Myth No. 4: Rich or famous people on the waiting list get organs faster
Hasz says this simply is not true. He explains there’s a national computer system that matches donated organs to recipients. “The factors used in matching include blood type, time spent waiting, other important medical information, how sick the person is, and geographic location,” Hasz says. “Race, income, and celebrity are never considered.”
Myth No. 5: There’s an age limit when it comes to being able to donate organs
All adults in the U.S. can register to be an organ donor and, in some states, those under age 18 can sign up with a parent or guardian’s permission, according to HRSA.
As Bowen puts it, “You are never too old to be an organ, eye, or tissue donor — in fact, the oldest organ donor was 95 and the oldest tissue and cornea donor was 107! Your age or health should not prevent you from registering to be an organ, eye, and tissue donor.”
Rather than age alone, the ability to donate organs and tissue depends on the circumstances of a person’s death and their health at that time, explains Hasz. “Everyone is encouraged to sign up to become a donor and has the potential to save and heal lives regardless of age or medical history,” he says.
To register to become an organ donor, you can sign up by state on the U.S. Health Resources and Service Administration’s site or in person at your local DMV.
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