Organ Harvesting This Emotional Life - PBS

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Grief and Loss / Blog

   Craig Boyd Garner

Craig Boyd Garner's Bio

Craig is an attorney and health care consultant, specializing in issues surrounding modern American health care.

Organ Harvesting


Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:  “The only gift is a portion of thyself.”

 When dealing with the impending death of a loved one in a hospital setting, there can be so many things to consider.  Sadness and grief may be overwhelming for both the patient and family members alike.  But thanks to modern medical science, many terminally ill individuals and their families are given the opportunity to alleviate the suffering of others by choosing to offer the chance to perpetuate life in unexpected, often miraculous ways.

Organ harvesting refers to the removal, preservation and use of human organs and tissue from the bodies of the recently deceased to be used in surgical transplants on the living.  Though mired in ethical debate and heavily regulated, organ donation in the United States has largely become an accepted medical practice.  This is good news, as the number of people needing a transplant continues to rise faster than the number of donors. Over 4,000 transplant candidates are added to the national waiting list each month, and every day doctors across the country perform between seventy to eighty transplants of the various organs within the human body.

Though these numbers are in many ways astounding, they still fall dramatically short of the need, as approximately eighteen people die each day while waiting for a suitable donor to be found to match their condition and blood type.  There are now more than 105,000 people on the waiting list for solid organ transplants, and experts suggest that each of us could save or help as many as fifty people by being an organ and tissue donor.  Unfortunately, though three-quarters of the American populace stand in favor of organ donation, fewer than half of those families approached after a loved one’s death are willing to consent to harvesting.

Transplantation: Fact vs. Fiction

Even as modern medicine continues its advances in the field of transplantation, many myths abound surrounding the process itself.  When making the decision to sign your own donor’s card or to offer your consent for a loved one after death, it is important to know the truth:

MYTH:  KIDNEYS ARE THE ONLY OPTION.  Improvements in both procedures and technologies over recent years have not only increased success rates, but have made many organs viable for transplant, including the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs, pancreas, small intestine, corneas, and certain body tissues. 

MYTH:  I AM TOO OLD / TOO YOUNG.  Age plays no part in being considered for donation.  From newborns to octogenarians, everyone is qualified to donate his or her organs.  In fact, children make up a sizable portion of transplant recipients.  Though a few medical conditions such as HIV, infection, or certain types of cancer may make a person ineligible, the rule of thumb states that if a patient has a normally functioning organ, that organ can be considered for donation.

 MYTH:  WHY BOTHER?  IT WON’T WORK.  Though there is always the chance that a transplant will be rejected, the outlook has drastically improved in recent years.  Currently, the success rate for any vital organ is above 80%, and over 90% for most tissue transplants.  This is a particularly important reason for certain ethnic and racial minorities to consider donation, as the chances for acceptance by the recipient’s body are increased when the organs are genetically similar.

MYTH:  I HAVE TIME TO THINK ABOUT IT.  From a medical standpoint, organs must be donated as soon as possible once brain death occurs, while circulation is artificially maintained throughout the body.  Thus, the window for procuring consent is small.  From a psychological standpoint, signing a donor card now may save your loved ones considerable anguish in the future, should the worst occur.

MYTH:  ONLY THE RICH RECEIVE TRANSPLANTS.  While health insurance does come into play, a patient’s bank account has no bearing on the transplant waiting list.  Factors that do affect the decision include a patient’s blood and tissue type, the severity of illness, the time a patient has been on the list, the patient’s location, and the patient’s size.

MYTH:  DONATING ORGANS WILL DISRUPT THE FUNERAL.  Timely removal of a patient’s organs will neither alter the clothed appearance of the body nor delay the possibility of holding a funeral.  Organ harvesting is always done respectfully in a sterile environment, and any religious concerns can be addressed in advance with the transplant team.

Finally, it is important to remember that total organ donation is only considered once it is clear that a patient has no hope of survival. Until that time, the focus will always be on healing the patient at hand. The prospect of gathering viable organs from a severely injured patient plays no role whatsoever in a doctor’s overall diagnosis or treatment, as every doctor is medically and ethically obligated to provide each patient with the best quality care until such time as brain death occurs.  Pledging to donate an organ will never place the patient in added jeopardy, though it may save a stranger from harm. 

While it is difficult to think of the needs of others just as you are preparing to deal with loss yourself, for many families the act of donation resounds as a psychologically positive final act to commemorate the life of the deceased, offering substantial consolation during this most troubling time.  Organ donation can be an altruistic gesture, and stands as a testament both to the spirit of humankind and the ingenuity that has gone into making such a process possible.