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Debunking Myths About Organ Donation
  • Posted April 9, 2023

Debunking Myths About Organ Donation

Far more people need an organ transplant than there are organs available.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Dr. Johnny Hong, chief of transplantation at Penn State Health's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, explored some of the myths about organ donation.

"We have an organ shortage crisis,"he said in a center news release.

Seventeen people on the waiting list for an organ will die today, and misinformation is a big part of that.

While more than 100,000 people in the United States wait for organ transplants, less than half that received them last year. Nearly 43,000 people received an organ, up 3.7% from 2021.

One reason: Many potential donors fail to check the organ donation box on driver's license applications or choose not to register. Yet, Hong said, a single deceased organ donor can save as many as eight lives.

The first myth Hong wants to correct is that doctors won't revive you if you're near death and have signed up to be an organ donor because they want to harvest your organs.

"There is absolutely no truth to that,"Hong said.

The words "organ donation"aren't even mentioned in an emergency until the patient meets very specific legal criteria for being past the point of no return -- when the heart has stopped or the brain has died, he emphasized.

Health care workers are entirely concerned with saving the person's life, Hong said.

"Organ donation is highly regulated,"he said. "There are multiple layers of regulatory requirement."

The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network website has the specifics.

The heart can be transplanted four hours after death, according to A liver can last 24 hours. Corneas can be donated 14 days after someone dies.

Some donations can be made years after a donor's death. Bones and skin, for example, are viable for five years. Heart valves can be used 10 years after they've been removed from living tissue, according to Penn State Health.

"A huge focus in our medical research today is geared toward developing new therapies to allow donated organs to remain viable for an extended period,"Hong added.

Another myth is that there's a fee for donating organs. Hospitals and doctors can't charge people making a donation and donors can't be paid for their donation. That's the law.

Nor is it true that there are already enough donors, Hong said.

Transplantation experts use nationwide lists to search for matches in blood type and immunology. Organ size must also match.

Another myth is that if a person donates an organ such as a kidney or part of a liver, their life span will shrink. It's not true.

If you have two healthy kidneys, one kidney will take up the job of its missing counterpart with no ill effects, according to Penn State Health. Likewise, when part of the liver is donated, the remaining part of the organ will grow and supply full function.

Doctors also put living donors through a vigorous battery of testing. Penn State Health noted that the medical team is worried about protecting two lives -- the living donor and the transplant recipient.

Living donors do have to recover from the surgery, but surgery is becoming easier as medical science progresses, Hong said. While donating a kidney once meant a five- to seven-day hospital stay, today's laparoscopic procedures mean donors typically go home within three days.

Liver donation typically results in a longer hospital stay -- a week or more. That's because the remaining portion of the liver must be nurtured to regenerate what was lost. Home recovery can take two to three months. Doctors are now moving toward less invasive methods for liver donation, Penn State Health noted.

Finally, Hong said it's not true that someone can't donate if they've had an illness or they're older.

"The No. 1 priority for a living donor program is the safety and well-being of the living donor,"he said. "So, if there's anything that would subject the donor to an additional risk, like a chronic illness, then most likely the person will not be able to donate. But again, we have to define that illness clearly."

Physiological age is more important than chronological age when donating, according to Hong. There is no age cutoff and deceased donors are sometimes 70 to 80 years old.

Organ function and overall health are what matter. Living donors must be healthy enough to undergo the operation safely and be well after donation.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on transplant safety.

SOURCE: Penn State Health, news release, April 5, 2023

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