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Organ Donation and Your Options

Posted on February 18, 2021

What happens to your organs after your death is both a deeply personal choice and one that binds us to others.

Opting to donate organs after death is entirely voluntary and there are also alternative options you may want to explore. Your decisions may be influenced by many things, including your understanding of those in need of organ donation or your wish to have your body remain intact for burial.

The choice is yours.

How organ donation works

When you die, your body will be prepared as quickly as possible for organ donation. Your organs, tissue and blood are removed and stored securely to be transplanted in the body of another.

Organs such as the heart or lungs have a short lifespan outside of the body. Because they only are viable for a maximum of six hours, they are generally transplanted in the body of a patient who is nearby.

There is an extensive waiting list for people hoping to be matched for organ donation. Donations are offered based on:

  • Blood type
  • Body size
  • Severity of illness
  • Donor proximity
  • Tissue type
  • Time on the waiting list

Are there alternatives to organ donation?

There are a few cases where you may not qualify as an organ donor, such as active cancer or a systemic infection. Upon your death, doctors will examine your organs and determine whether they are acceptable for donation and subsequent transplant.

Tissue donation

Don’t let the name fool you. Tissue donation is more than just body tissue. In addition to skin, it also encompasses things like bone and corneas. Tissue donation is almost universally an option, even if your organs aren’t suitable for transplant.

Blood donation

Like tissue donation, those who aren’t eligible to donate organs may still be able to donate their blood. Blood is in high demand and only about 3% of the eligible population chooses to donate blood.

Medical science

Unlike tissue donation and blood donation, donating your body to medical science falls outside of the realm of organ donation altogether. You can choose to bequeath your body to medical science.

Medical schools are dependent on gifts of bodies to aid in the study of human anatomy, ageing and disease. They are used to educate future medical professionals.

Gifting your body to medical science means your entire body will be used for that purpose. To donate your body, it’s recommended you make note of it in your will. You also need to notify your family of your intentions so they are prepared in the event of your death. Depending on the institution, you also need to fill out the proper donation and permission to cremate forms.

Bodies donated to medical science education institutions are cremated after they serve their purpose. Most institutions will have a policy in place for shipping the cremated remains to your loved ones for memorial purposes.

Even the best laid plans can go awry, so there are a few essential things to note. One is that, despite the request, the institution may not have the capacity or the ability to take the body at the time of your death. In these cases, your family will be required to prepare for the burial or cremation of the body. It’s important to have a plan already in place in the event this occurs.

Additionally, should your death take place outside of a hospital setting without the means to store a body, remains may be transferred to a funeral home to await pickup. In those cases, the costs of funeral home transportation, storage and resources are often shouldered by your family.

When making the decision to donate your body to medical science, check with the institution you plan to donate to and thoroughly explore their policies.

Green funeral

If you prefer an option with a minimal environmental impact, or love being in nature and wish to have your body become a part of the earth, a green funeral may be a good option for you. Green funerals are done entirely without synthetic chemicals and bodies are deposited directly into the earth, wrapped in a biodegradable shroud.

It’s worth noting that organ donation does not exclude you from being eligible for a green burial. After your organs have been removed, your loved ones are still able to provide a green funeral for you. In the case your body has been donated to medical science, you are likely not eligible for a green burial due to the chemicals used by institutions to preserve the body for educational purposes.

Opting out

You can always choose not to donate your organs after death. In both the United States and Canada, you opt to donate your organs. You are not automatically opted in, rather you must demonstrate your wishes for organ donation. These programs are run at the state and provincial levels, so it’s best to consult local governing bodies to understand your options.

What about donor diversity?

Organs are not matched by race and ethnicity. In fact, people of different races often qualify for donated organs. Despite this, those waiting for an organ transplant do have a better chance of receiving a transplant if there are more donors from their ethnic background.

Although often organs from a person of one race can be transplanted into the body of a person from another, there are certain compatible blood types and tissue markers that are unique to ethnicity and are essential for donor matching.

How to become an organ donor (USA)

A survey by the U.S. Government Information on Organ Donation and Transplantation found that 90% of U.S. adults support organ donation.

But, only 60% are registered as donors.

In the United States, organ donation operates on the opt-in method. You can choose to opt into organ donation by filling out a form at the state level. The Health Resources and Services Administration has a helpful guide for understanding organ donation, with links to opt in forms for each state.

How to become an organ donor (Canada)

In Canada, there are few registered organ donors. Only 20% of the population is registered to donate.

Organ donation opt-in happens at the provincial level. Nova Scotia implemented an opt-out system earlier this year, the only place in North America to do so. Everywhere else, you need to register your decision to opt-in with provincial Medicare.

Whatever you choose, know there are endless resources out there to help you understand your decision to opt-into organ donation, or choose an alternative path.


Author(s): My Coda's Editorial Team

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