What happens when you donate your organs?

Have you considered signing up as an organ donor? Here’s how the organ donation process works in Australia.

While organ donors often die in tragic circumstances, their organs can save up to seven people – and potentially many more through tissue donation.

Right now about 1800 Australians are waiting for their life-saving second chance, an organ transplant.

So how does the organ donation process work?

Step 1: Hospital identifies a potential organ donation candidate

DonateLife Victoria state medical director Dr Rohit D’Costa says only about 2 per cent of people who die in Australian hospitals each year will be able to donate their organs.

A person must die in a hospital’s intensive care unit or emergency department to be a potential organ donor.

When a hospital identifies a patient who may fit the criteria, they refer to specialist organ donation team in the hospital.

Step 2: Australian Organ Donor Register check

A member of that team, such as organ donation specialist nursing co-ordinator Indra Gramnea, then checks the Australian Organ Donor Register.

“We check to see if the person has registered their wish to be an organ donor,” Indra says.

Step 3: The person’s family is consulted

A donation specialist doctor and nurse meet with the potential donor’s family to talk about the organ and tissue donation process and support them to make a decision that is right for them and their loved one.

The family needs to give consent even if the patient has registered to be a donor.

“We approach families to discuss and explore organ donation, regardless of the outcome of the register check,” Indra says.

“I’ve had families that say it is the one positive thing that comes from a very sad and difficult time in their life – knowing their loved one is able to help others.”

Dr D’Costa, who is also an intensive care specialist, says that registering as a donor is so important.

“We really need people to register and talk to their families, so there’s no doubt as to what the person would have wanted,” Dr D’Costa says.

Step 4: Preparations begin

Once the family has consented, tests are conducted to ensure the person’s organs are medically suitable for transplantation.

Dr D’Costa says there are only a few conditions that exclude organ donation, such as cancer.

“Each organ transplant decision for someone who’s dying takes into account all the risks and benefits. This is a very individual decision,” Dr D’Costa says.

“Age is not a barrier, we’ve had donors into their 80s.”

Step 5: Donors are matched with recipients

Donation specialist nurses reach out to transplant units across Australia to find an appropriate recipient.

Organs that can be transplanted include the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and pancreas.

Heart valves and other heart tissue, bone, tendons, ligaments, skin and parts of the eye such as the cornea and sclera can also be transplanted.

“It might be a heart valve in a heart operation, which means people who have trouble breathing or walking, their lives are transformed and they can live more normal lives again,” Dr D’Costa says.

“Or it could be someone on dialysis who is tethered to a machine three times a week or more, and suddenly they’re able to get back to work, do all the things we take for granted.”

Step 6: The transplant process

Organs are removed from the donor and transported, including via helicopter or airplane if needed, to the recipient, who undergoes transplant surgery.

All organ donations and transplants are performed by specialist medical teams in the public health system.

Meanwhile the donor’s body is treated with dignity and respect.

Donating organs and tissue doesn’t change the physical appearance of the donor and does not affect funeral arrangements.

Step 7: After the organ donation

Donation specialist staff keep in contact with the donor’s family and provide ongoing support.

By law, the identity of donors and recipients must be kept anonymous, Indra says.

But outcomes of the donation are shared with families.

“We send a letter a few weeks after the donation thanking the donor and their family, and this includes some non-identifying information about the recipients,” Indra says.

Want to register as an organ donor?

If you’ve decided you want to be an organ donor, simply visit DonateLife and register with your Medicare card. It only takes one minute to register.

And remember to have a conversation about it with your loved ones.

DonateLife Week runs until Sunday, August 1.

Written by Bianca Carmona.