Part of The McKenzie Law Firm’s core estate planning package includes healthcare directives, among them documents addressing organ donation. While this is not the most difficult decision clients face – that’s the “unplug” question – it is definitely a subject that can get an emotional reaction.

Our clients have included members of the medical field, as well as those who have personal experience with organ donation. Given our experience, we’d like to take a moment and address some of the issues that occur when we discuss organ donation. Before we start, lets clarify a few terms.

Terms You Need to Know

Living Donation: This occurs when a person donates one of their organs while they are still alive. This is usually a kidney, or another organ that the donor can live without.

Postmortem Donation: This can only take place once brain death has been conclusively established by the attending physician.

Organ: Organs that can be transplanted include: the kidneys, corneas, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, and small bowel.

Tissue: Donated tissue can include skin, bone, bone marrow, veins, skin, tendons, ligaments, and heart valves. Tissue donation can benefit patients in a number of serious or life-threatening medical situations, including saving patients with severe burns, allowing athletes with torn ligaments or tendons to heal and regain strength, restoring hope and mobility to military men and women who have been injured in combat, and repairing musculoskeletal structures such as teeth, skin, and spinal components.

Who Can Be An Organ Donor?

The most common response we hear to the question of organ donation concerns a patient’s age. “I’m too old to donate.” But donations have been made successfully by people in their 90s, and a recent John Hopkins study proved successful outcomes for kidney transplants with living donors over the age of 70. It all depends on the organ or tissue and the health of the donor. Over 100,000 people are currently on the organ donation list, so the need is great. As they say in the community: “Better an old donor than no donor!”

We also hear concerns regarding the viability of a client’s organs. “No one would want my organs!” This may be true in certain circumstances. There are medical conditions which do disqualify you from being an organ donor, but this is a decision that should be made by the medical staff and not prematurely assumed. Moreover, donation for purposes of scientific research is always permissible, and in cases of severe or rare illness can be a great gift to the scientific community.

How Does Organ Donation Work?

The other most common concern we hear involves the process for donating. Articles titled “The Dark Side of Organ Donation,” as well as personal experiences have made some people leery of the process. While is it true that living donations can carry complications and unforeseen side effects, postmortem donations pose no risks to the donor, and rumors of organ mills or transplant doctors prematurely declaring a patient deceased are largely exaggerated.

An open casket funeral is often possible, even after donation. And the family will have final say in which organs and tissues are used for donation which gives your agent the chance to communicate your wishes. For more information, see this article on common myths surrounding organ donation.

Organ Donation Is Not For Everyone

This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons for choosing not to donate organs or tissues. The great number of patients waiting for an organ, the profound life-saving nature of donation, and the advocacy of donor organizations have all combined to make organ donation a sensitive topic, but it is not a topic which has a clear answer for everyone. Members of the medical community have reported that there is significant pressure on families to allow organ donation, and that this conversation may take place before the family has accepted that their loved one won’t survive.

Some people would prefer not to donate sexual organs or tissues, while others feel strongly that organ donation is unnatural, or have a religious reason against it. Still others believe the inherent biases of the system might result in unworthy recipients being enabled to continue harmful behavior.

Make Your Preference Known

If you are on the fence about organ donation, we encourage you to research the options and then communicate your wishes to your loved ones. Everyone comes to the decision from a different place. We try to include various perspectives in the discussions we have with clients, so that all considerations are met.

In the end, your healthcare directives should reflect your values, and the decision – whether yes or no – should be made with informed confidence. If this is an issue you’ve put off for too long, come see us. We’ll help you think through all the tough questions relating to life and death, so you can have peace of mind.