Answers to Potential Donors' Top Questions
Published April 2021
Each day, 17 people die waiting for an organ transplant. About 107,000 people in the U.S. are currently waiting for an organ transplant that could save their lives.
"In Illinois, patients typically wait 5–6 years for a kidney transplant from deceased donors, which is less than the average wait time in other states," says Juan Carlos Caicedo, MD, transplant surgeon and director of the Hispanic Transplant Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
How and what can you donate?
There are two main types of organ transplantations:
- Deceased donor organ transplantation: A surgical procedure to remove and then transplant an organ from an individual who has died as a registered donor and was willing to donate life-saving organs, such as a heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas, livers and intestines. These donors can also donate tissues, including corneas, skin, bones, heart valves and ligaments.
- Living donor organ transplantation: A surgical procedure to remove an organ from a living person to place in another living person who has a nonfunctioning organ. Living donors can donate one kidney and part of their liver. "You can take up to 70% of someone's liver and it will grow back," says Dr. Caicedo.
Today, the number of deceased donor transplantations is greater than the number of living donor transplantations.
Who can be a donor?
Anyone can register to be an organ donor, but not everyone who wants to be a donor can be a donor. Potential living donors must be in relatively good health, both physically and emotionally. In addition, kidney donors need to be older than 18, and liver donors must be aged 18 to 60.
As a potential living donor, you'll go through a confidential evaluation process to determine the health of your organs, emotional readiness and education around organ donation. "We want to ensure that donors are ready," explains Dr. Caicedo. "They have to convince us that they should donate. The safety of the donor is the most important consideration in this process."
Northwestern Medicine also meets the needs of a diverse patient population interested in donating. With a bilingual team, Northwestern Medicine offers a culturally sensitive Hispanic Transplant Program, for example, that is dedicated to serving Spanish-speaking patients in need of a transplant.
How is a match determined?
Donor transplantation can occur in two ways:
- Directed donation: A donor allocates an organ to a patient, such as a friend or family member. In this case, they are registered as a donor with the intention of supporting the health of one specific recipient by donating a specific organ. This is the most common type of living donor transplantation.
- Nondirected donation: A donor donates an organ without the intent of giving the organ to a specific patient. This typically occurs when someone registers as an organ donor, often displayed on their driver's license, but can also happen if the individual chooses to donate an organ to a health system or organization that will then select the best match for a recipient at the top of the waiting list. This choice is also available to living kidney and liver donors.
Medical needs, blood type, and anatomy and size of the organ are evaluated to check whether any donor and recipient are compatible.
What types of conditions require organ donation?
There are many causes of organ failure that may require an organ transplantation. These include:
- Hepatitis B and C
- Kidney or liver failure
- Cardiomyopathy, or disease of the heart muscle
- Short bowel syndrome, or disease of the small intestine
- Polycystic kidneys
- Cirrhosis, or the scarring of the liver
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or the loss of lung function
- Coronary heart disease
- Cystic fibrosis (CF)
Is organ donation risky?
There are many myths surrounding the safety of organ living donation. However, the health of each individual patient comes first. "The guiding principle is that minimizing the risk and protecting the safety of the donor is the most important piece of the process," explains Dr. Caicedo.
For living donors, the donation procedure uses a minimally invasive approach that typically results in less pain, a shorter hospital stay and a faster recovery. For deceased donors, the patient is only considered once all avenues are exhausted to save the potential donor's life.
All organ donation is completely voluntary. Donors have the power to change lives and provide hope to those in need. "God knows we need organs more here on earth than we do in heaven," states Dr. Caicedo.
You can register to become an organ donor today.