April Is Organ Donation Month: What You MUST Do if You Are Considering Organ Donation

Q. I have heard so many stories about organ donation, mostly positive. I’ve read about how many people need organs and how many lives just one person who is an organ and/or tissue donor can save. I think I may want to sign up, and I’m figuring out the next steps to take. Can you tell me more about organ donation and what I need to do to include it in my legal documents? Thanks for your help!

A. April is National Donate Life Month and today, April 22, is National Donate Life Month Blue & Green Day! Doctors and advocates say it’s more important than ever to bring attention to the need for organ donors, as every 10 minutes another person is added to a national waiting list. Even though 95% of people surveyed in the United States support organ donation, the organ donor registration rate is below 50% in most states including Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC, according to the Gift of Life program.

Alisa and Frank Furfaro are happily married and are both heart transplant recipients. “It is beyond a miracle, yes. If someone didn’t check that box, then I wouldn’t be standing here,” said Alisa Furfaro. They both have had amazing success with organ donation and share their story to bring awareness. “Organ donation gives you another chance to say ‘okay, I’m going to get up tomorrow and experience my life and take advantage of all the opportunities that come my way,’” said Frank.

Organ Donation Has Helped Millions of People Already

One organ donor can save the lives of up to eight people, and a tissue donor can improve the lives of more than 100 others! And of course some organ donations can take place while you’re living.

Kidneys are the most in-demand organ — with more than 95,000 people across the nation waiting for one — followed by liver, heart, and lungs. In addition, skin can heal burn victims, bone and ligaments are used in orthopedic surgeries, and corneas give the gift of sight.

No one is too old or too sick to register. Anyone 16 years or older can join the Donate Life Registry. When it comes to health, very few medical conditions automatically disqualify you from donating organs. The decision to use an organ is based on strict medical criteria, and it may turn out that certain organs are not suitable for transplantation, but other organs and tissues may be fine. Only medical professionals at the time of death can determine whether organs are suitable for transplantation.

Last year, Cecil Lockhart, a 95-year-old, became the oldest organ donor in United States history after he died last May and his liver was donated to a woman in her sixties. Cecil was inspired to become an organ donor upon the death of his son Stanley in 2010. When Stanley died, he donated tissue that healed the lives of 75 people and helped restore sight to two people by donating his cornea. Read more about Cecil in my article about him and organ donation.

What Is the Difference Between Living and Deceased Donations?

A living donor may be a blood relative, spouse, or friend. Some living donors are not related to or known by the recipient, but donate purely from selfless motives.

As mentioned earlier, kidneys are the most in-demand organ and can be donated while you are still alive. Parts of livers, lungs, intestines, and pancreas can also be donated from one living person to another. Medical personnel at transplant centers determine who is a candidate for living donation.

Deceased donation occurs when an organ is recovered from a patient who has died and who has either been registered as a donor and/or authorized in his or her legal documents to do so; if someone dies who has not been registered and does not have documents authorizing donation, then the next of kin can make the decision to donate.

What You Can Do During National Donate Life Month

No one wants to think about the type of tragedy that would necessitate the decision to donate organs from yourself or a loved one. But for those on waitlists and their families, the life-and-death scenarios are also very real. Being prepared to be a donor with family conversations, decisions, and by getting your legal documents in order can ease the uncertainty and make saving someone’s life a gift that you can offer.

As part of April’s National Donate Life Month campaign, Donate Life reminds those who support organ donation to take actions to prepare in advance:

  • Understand the facts about organ donation: Many people worry that when they elect to donate their organs, life-saving measures will not be taken as seriously in the hospital. Keep in mind that when you go to the hospital for treatment, doctors focus on saving your life — not somebody else’s. According to Donate Life, when you die, people who have agreed to organ donation are given more tests (at no charge to their families) to determine that they’re truly dead than are those who haven’t agreed to organ donation.
  • Share the decision: Talk to your family about organ, tissue, and eye donation. Let them know your wishes and ask them about theirs.
  • Sign up to become a donor: Everyone can register regardless of age or medical history. There are many organizations where you can register in advance to be an organ donor. Here are a few:
    • The simplest way to register, no matter where you live or where you may travel, is by clicking here to register with the National Donate Life Registry. When you register with the National Donate Life Registry, you are registering to be an organ, eye, and tissue donor for the purpose of saving and healing lives through transplantation. You can register with the National Donate Life Registry at org or even through your iPhone Health App.
    • You can also start at the federal government’s website by clicking here, but if you spend your time living in multiple states, be sure to register in all states where are you live. If you don’t travel, just pick the state you live in to register:
    • To register to donate your organs in Virginia, click here.
    • To register to donate your organs in Maryland, click here.
    • To register to donate your organs in DC, click here.
  • Designate your choice on your driver’s license. Do this when you obtain or renew your license.
  • Connect with Donate Life on social media: The Donate Life community of donor families, transplant recipients, living donors, and advocates is filled with generosity and gratitude. Read and share inspiring stories by following Donate Life on Facebook, and @DonateLife on Instagram and Twitter.
  • Sign up for full body donation and free cremation services. Even if you think you are too old, or you think your organs are too weak, or you think that you would never be a viable organ donor because you have had some disease such as cancer that might make your organs undesirable for transplant, you can still donate your entire body to science, and get free cremation services in the process. There are national and state-level organizations that allow you to register in advance (or your family can use these services after your death even if you did not register in advance) to donate your entire body for scientific study and anatomical research. The easiest way to register is typically through national Anatomy Gifts Registry, which allows you to donate your body to science, providing you with a lasting way to support medical research advancements that can impact the lives of future generations for decades to come. With whole body donation, medical communities are able to continue to discover cures and therapies for many diseases and conditions currently afflicting patients across the world. Programs such as these also allow you to receive free or almost free cremation services, thus saving your family money while also benefiting society. Alternatively, you can register at the state level:
    • To register to donate your entire body for scientific advancement in Virginia, you can register with the Virginia State Anatomical Program through the Virginia Department of Health.
    • In Maryland, you can register by completing the Maryland State Anatomy Board donor form.  You must write or telephone the Board to request this form and any additional information. You can find additional information here.
  • Plan Ahead: If you have designated someone to make health care decisions for you if you become unable to do so, make sure that person knows that you want to be an organ donor. Be sure to include your wishes in your Advance Medical Directive.

Document Your Decision in Your Advance Medical Directive

An Advance Medical Directive authorizes another person to make decisions with respect to your medical care in the event that you are physically or mentally unable to do so. Whether or not you feel strongly about organ donation, it is important to make your intentions known in an Advance Medical Directive if you want your wishes to be honored.

Our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® includes an After-Death Directive that addresses organ donation in detail, and allows you to stipulate which organs you would want donated (for example, some people want to donate internal organs, but not skin and bones, which are actually two of the most desired types of donor tissue) and even name intended recipients if perhaps you have family members with kidney disease or some other organ disease who might in the future be in need of a transplant. Our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® also enables you to set forth your preferences with regard to funeral arrangements and disposition of remains.

In your 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive®, you can also appoint an agent and give that person the power to consent to medical and health care decisions on your behalf. This person can decide whether to withhold or withdraw a specific medical treatment or course of treatment when you are incapable of making or communicating an informed decision yourself. Our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® also contains a proprietary Long-Term Care Directive® that allows you to address numerous issues that arise if and when long-term care is needed and you’re unable to communicate your wishes. You can also indicate your wishes concerning the use of artificial or extraordinary measures to prolong your life in the event of a terminal illness or injury.

If you have not done Incapacity Planning (including our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® and Financial Power of Attorney), Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please contact us to schedule your appointment for our initial consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Estate Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Estate Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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