Debunked: 9 False Beliefs About Organ Donation and Transplantation

It’s one of the leading medical issues of our time: Human donor organs are in extremely short supply, and everyone who needs a transplant doesn’t always get one.

Although organ donors contribute to the more than 28,000 life-saving transplants that happen each year, there clearly aren’t enough organs available for all of the 113,000 people currently waiting for a life-saving transplant. As a result, nearly 20 Americans die daily while waiting on the list.

Clearly, the world needs more organ donors. But the supply of donor organs is one thing. The willingness to donate is another. So, why aren’t more people willing to give the gift of life through organ donation?

Misinformation is largely to blame. Several myths about organ donation and transplantation continue to linger and confuse potential donors. In this two-part series, Indiana University Health kidney transplant specialist Tim Taber, M.D. debunks some of these pervasive myths:

Myth #1: If I agree to donate my organs, doctors won’t try to save me in an emergency.

Fact:  If you’re taken to the hospital in an emergency situation, the medical team’s number one priority is to save your life. Also, the physicians who care for you in an emergency are in no way involved with the doctors responsible for removing and transplanting organs. In fact, the organ transplant team isn’t even contacted until every effort has been made to save the patient's life, death is officially declared and the patient’s family has agreed to donate their loved one’s organs.

Myth # 2: If I donate, my healthy organs will probably go to a substance abuser.

Fact: The national organ distribution system is designed to prevent donor organs from going to people who actively smoke, use alcohol or abuse illegal drugs. Candidates seeking transplant are screened thoroughly and tested at random times for substance abuse. If pre-transplant tests consistently indicate such abuse, the candidate is promptly taken off the transplant list. Donors can be assured their organs will go to sober people in need.

Myth # 3: Rich and famous people get “first dibs” on donor organs.

Fact: The national organ distribution system pays no attention to an individual’s name, celebrity, wealth or social status. Instead, the system distributes organs based on severity of illness, time spent waiting, blood type and other important medical information. So, despite widely publicized media stories about celebrities receiving transplants, the rich and famous have to wait in line for organs just like everyone else.

Myth # 4: I can’t donate organs because of my medical history.

Fact: Don’t disqualify yourself as a life-saver too soon. In fact, many diseases once thought to prohibit individuals from becoming organ donors are no longer considered barriers (examples include diabetes and hepatitis). Medical professionals will consider donor suitability on a case-by-case basis at the time of death. Certain organs may not be suitable for donation, but other organs and tissues may be fine. So, regardless of your medical history, be sure to register your donation decision and share it with your family.

Myth # 5: I can’t have an open-casket funeral if I donate my organs.

Fact: Organ and tissue donation doesn't disfigure or affect the appearance of the deceased or rule out an open-casket funeral. The donor's body is clothed so there are no visible signs that organs or tissues have been removed.

Myth # 6: If I donate one of my kidneys, I won’t live as long.

Fact: Many people are afraid of becoming living kidney donors because they're scared of being left with one kidney. However, recent studies show that a living kidney donor’s life expectancy is no shorter than anyone else’s. Living donors undergo extensive testing and one of the best physicals of their lives to make sure they are in good shape for a long, healthy life with just one kidney. In fact, those who pass such tests typically rank among the highest percentile of healthy people. And, while it is extremely rare for them to require a kidney transplant because of serious illness or injury, living donors are rewarded for their generosity by automatically being placed at the top of the transplant list for the next available organ should they ever be in need themselves.

Myth # 7: I’m not the right age for donation.

Fact: There’s no defined cutoff age for donating organs and age limits for donation no longer exist. Organs have been successfully transplanted from donors as young as a newborn or well into their nineties. Donor organ suitability is based on strict medical criteria, not age. Some organs, like the liver, age at a slower rate and can be accepted from donors age 80 and beyond. However, if you are under age 18, tell your parents about your wish to donate so they can give consent.

Myth # 8: My family will to have to pay if I donate my organs.

Fact: The donor's family (or their insurance company) is only responsible for paying for medical care up to the point of death. After death, any costs related to organ or tissue donation are covered, leaving no such charges to the donor's estate or family.

Myth # 9: My religion is against organ donation.

Fact: Beliefs that are consistent with organ donation can be found in most organized religions, including various branches and denominations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In fact, many of the world’s major faith traditions consider organ donation an act of generosity based on an individual’s choice.

Question: Would you be willing to donate?

Hoosiers interested in becoming organ donors can go to the Donate Life Indiana website at www.donatelifeindiana.org. For more information about IU Health Transplant visit www.iuhealth.org/transplant or call 800.622.4989. IU Health Transplant offers Medicare-approved kidney, pancreas, liver, intestine, heart, lung and multivisceral (multi-organ) transplants and has some of the shortest wait times and best outcomes in the country.

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  • Name: Diane Franks
  • Posted: 10/18/2012

I am from the UK and donated one of my kidneys to someone a couple of years ago. It was the best thing I ever did. Knowing that I was able to give someone a second chance at life and that I gave them back to their family so they could all enjoy life again is amazing. Although I had been on the organ donor register for many years there was no guarantee that my organs would be usable upon my death. So donating a kidney now ensured that at least one organ was going to good use. Hopefully upon my death all my other organs can also be used. What is so important though is for people who want to donate after death to tell their next of kin and family. So many lives are lost because next of kin refuse for their loved ones organs to be used. Later though, they often regret that decision but by then it is too late. So please ... have a conversation with your family about this and make sure they know and will abide by your wishes.