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Thousands of lives at stake in organ donation decisions

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Your husband has a stroke. He is
admitted to the hospital. The medical staff does everything
possible to save him. At the point doctors determine he is
brain dead, they come to you and inform you of his
condition. You are given time to grieve and understand what
is going on, then sometime later a doctor comes to you and
says, “Your husband is an excellent candidate for organ
What would you do?
Presently 55,000 Americans are awaiting organ
“Approximately 3,000 people a year become organ
transplant donors,” said Wade Taggart, assistant
administrator for Oklahoma Organ Sharing Network.
“There are 23,000 who could be donors, but they either
refuse, aren’t asked or don’t know their organs can be used
to save the lives of others.”
Taggart said organs can only be harvested from patients
who are brain dead, and fewer than 2 percent of all hospital
deaths are brain-dead deaths.
“Also, patients must have been on a respirator when
they were declared brain dead,” Taggart said.
He added organs from a cardiac death cannot be used
because circulation has to be maintained.
“The rest of the body will follow brain death no matter
how much support you try to give,” Taggart said. “There is
usually a period between 24 and 48 hours after death to
retrieve organs.”
One misconception, Taggart said, is that people think
if they have signed a donor card or checked their driver’s
license, they will automatically become donors.
“But ultimately it is up to the family,” he said.
“I’ve had my driver’s license checked since I was 16,
but if my wife doesn’t want me to be an organ donor, or I
never told her I want to be a donor, and she said no, the
organization would not take my organs.”
That’s the reason it is important to sit down with
family members and make sure they know what your wishes are,
Taggart said.
That’s the reason for Decision Week in Oklahoma every
year during the week of Thanksgiving.
“This is a time when families can have a serious
discussion about organ and tissue donation,” said Decision
Week coordinator Tammye Green in Oklahoma.”
Nationally, this year’s National Organ and Tissue Donor
Awareness Week will be April 19-25.
“The key to saving lives through organ and tissue
donation is the family discussion. Your next of kin will
always be asked for consent before donation of your organs
and tissues can take place. They need to know your wishes.
It can eliminate much pain and confusion about the
The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, effective in all 50
states, allows anyone over the age of 18 to indicate his or
her desire to be an organ donor by signing a donor card,
which is available in doctors’ offices.
Taggart said most everyone is a potential donor
regardless of age.
“The only thing we look at as absolute rule-outs are
HIV infection and metastasis cancer,” he said.
“Cancer that has been treated 10 to 20 years ago and
skin cancer don’t really get in the way of donations.”
He said the oldest donor he has dealt with was 76, but
in Florida, a 92-year-old was a donor.
“If you’ve lived a healthy life, even if you’re 80
years old, you’ve still got organs that can be
transplanted,” he noted.
Heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, intestines and lungs
are some of the organs that can be transplanted. Equally
important is tissue that can be donated such as the eyes,
skin, bone, heart valves and tendons.
There is no cost to the family, and no disfigurement of
the body.
“You can still have an open casket at the funeral,”
Taggart said. “All procedures are surgical and are done by
very specialized personnel.”
One misconception about organ donation is that if a
person carries a donor card, it means that person will be
denied life-saving care at a hospital.
“The physician’s first priority is to save lives, not
acquire organs for transplantation,” Taggart emphasized.
“Death will be pronounced by a physician not connected with
the donation and transplantation process and only after all
brain activity has ceased.”
Every year countless people die while waiting for a
transplant, Taggart said. “This would not happen if enough
people made the decision to become potential organ and
tissue donors.
“A single donation can potentially help more than 50
Steps to becoming a donor include:
— Be informed. Get the facts about donation and
transplantation. A free brochure is available from the
Coalition on Donation, Richmond, Va., at 1-800-355-SHARE
— Make a decision. This is a personal and private
decision, but one that needs to be made.
— Check the organ donor box on the front of your
driver’s license, if your state has permitted that option.
— Discuss your decision with family. This is the MOST
IMPORTANT part of the entire process. Your family needs to
know what your wishes are and agree to carry them out.
Regardless of what you may or may not have signed, your next
of kin will be asked to consent to your becoming an organ
and tissue donor. If they say no, that is where the process
will end.

    About the Author

  • Dana Williamson