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Facts about organ donation in the UK

Posted by AK Lander | On January 14, 2021 00:00

Considering organ donation? We have provided answers to some of the biggest questions about organ donation and presented a list of helpful facts.

There are no two ways about it: organ donation can save lives. Donating an organ can be an incredibly kind gesture and many UK residents have agreed over recent years to donate their organs after they pass away. If you are currently considering whether organ donation is right for you, you have come to the right place. To get answers to some of the biggest questions about organ donation and the processes involved, we spoke to three organ donation organisations, OrgamitesOrgan Donation Scotland and the chairman of the Donor Family Network, Nigel Burton.

Hopefully, the below will make the process of organ donation a little clearer and your decision a little easier.

UK organ donation FAQ

1. Do British people have to donate their organs?

The quick answer to this question is no, Brits do not have to donate their organs. However, it is necessary for those who do not want to donate their organs to either opt-out personally or inform friends and family of their decision. If you do not opt-out, you will automatically be part of the NHS organ donor register, unless you are part of an excluded group. The NHS website reads: “The opt-out system means that all adults agree to become organ donors when they die, unless they have made it known that they do not wish to donate.”

2. Do you have to be in perfect health to be a donor?

Orgamites: “Very few medical conditions prevent you from donating your organs after death., including some cancer diagnoses, past or present. Medical professionals will always assess if organs are medically fit for transplantation regardless of age or medical history. One donor can save and transform up to 9 lives, so whoever you are you can still make a difference to someone else.”

3. Do recipients have to be roughly the same age as the donor?

Organ Donation Scotland: “No; only for some organs, but not all. In fact, when it comes to donating corneas, the donor’s age doesn’t matter.

“The deciding factor is the donor's physical condition rather than their age. You might be surprised that organs and tissue from people in their 70s and early 80s are often transplanted successfully.

“Anyone up to 85-years-old could be a potential organ donor when they die. In every case, there are specialist healthcare professionals who decide which organs and tissue are suitable.”

Donor Family Network: “Size of the organ is also a factor. A baby cannot take an organ from an adult. However, it is possible to split livers so that it can fit into younger people. This means that a liver can help two people. Kidneys from babies are small so if they are going into an adult both of them can be used. Age is a factor but there is quite a bit of tolerance.”

4. Will my family get to know who received my organs?

Organ Donation Scotland: “After the transplant, confidentiality is always maintained, except in the case of living donors who already know each other. If the family of the donor wishes, they will be given some brief details such as the age and sex of the person or persons who have benefitted from the donation. Patients who receive organs can obtain similar details about their donors.”

Donor Family Network: “After donation, (usually around 6 weeks) the donor family will get a letter from the data services department in Speke, Liverpool. This will give the donor family the approximate age and sex of the recipient, and how the operation went. The family are able to get an update on the recipients any time by contacting the centre and requesting an update.”

Orgamites: “It is commonplace for recipients to write to their donor families personally. The transplant centre will act as a liaison between the recipient and donor family but only if both parties agree to contact one another.”

Organ donor sign

5. Does the body look disfigured after organ donation?

Organ Donation Scotland: “Organs are always removed with the greatest care and respect. It takes place in a normal operating theatre and is carried out by specialist healthcare professionals who make sure the donor is treated with dignity.”

Orgamites: “During the organ donation process, surgical incisions are carefully closed and covered as in any surgical procedure. Additionally, organ donation won’t prevent an open-casket funeral either.”

Donor Family Network: “The donor is well prepared by the funeral people. The body will be dressed and placed in the coffin before the family will see the person in the chapel of rest. The clothes will cover any operation scars. If the person has donated their eyes, the eye sockets will be packed with some filling and a very small stitch will be placed in the eyelids to hold them closed. There may be some minor bruising too, but this is not usually a problem.”

6. How long after death does the donation process start?

Organ Donation Scotland: “It is essential to operate quickly as organs, unfortunately, deteriorate after a person’s death and so can only function well in a recipient if they are transplanted quickly.”

Orgamites: “As the donated organs have to be transplanted very soon after death they can only be donated by someone that has died in hospital. Specialist Nurses for Organ Donation (SNODs) will check whether a person is on the Organ Donor Register and then will consult the family of the donor before organ donation can take place.”

Donor Family Network: “Hearts only have 4 hours from being stopped in the donor before they have to be beating in the recipient.  Livers have a little longer and kidneys are the most tolerant, but donation should be done as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of damage to the organs.

“If the person is giving tissue and bone there is more time available. Eyes have to be taken within 24 hours after death.  Provided a blood sample is taken within the first 24 hours after death for testing, and there has not been too much invasive treatment to the person. Tissue and bone can be taken up to 48 hours after death, and this can be done in the mortuary.”

7. Could a person still be alive when their organs are removed?

Orgamites: “You can donate as a living donor (e.g. donating a kidney) but usually organ donation is from someone who has died in a hospital. This is known as deceased organ donation. There are very strict criteria for the diagnosis of death in the UK that a patient must meet, through a series of medical tests, before this type of organ donation can take place. Organs cannot proceed until these criteria have been met and death has been confirmed.”

Donor Family Network: “Certain religions only class the heart stopping as the death of a person. In the case where a person is brain dead, some religions believe that removal of the organs is actually killing the individual. However, usually, brain death is classed as the person being dead, because the person will not recover or regain consciousness. The doctors have to do two sets of brain stem tests, carried out by two independent doctors to assure the person is brain dead before donation can proceed, so there is little chance of the person being alive.”

Organ Donation Scotland: “In some other cases, people in hospital critical care units can donate organs after circulatory death; this means that their heart has stopped beating and they stop breathing. In these cases, doctors always wait until five minutes after their heart has stopped beating before death is confirmed.”

“Death has to be confirmed by a doctor who is entirely independent of the transplant team. It is important to reassure people that if they are admitted to hospital in a critical condition, the absolute first priority of doctors is always to save their patient’s life.”

8. What do the major religions say about organ donation?

People of a religious background may be concerned or confused about what their faith and beliefs say about organ donation. All major religions, however, are open to the principles of organ donation. And while the Catholic Church, for example, says that organ donation must always be a choice, to choose to do so is an act of charity and love; a generous gift to make to another person. You can learn more about the position of the major religions on organ donation here.

Heart in hand

Organ donation UK facts

  • You can choose not to donate your organs in the UK
  • You do not have to be in perfect health to donate organs
  • Recipients don’t have to be the same age as donors
  • The identity of who receives and donates organs remains confidential
  • The body is made to look presentable after organ donation
  • Hearts only have four hours from being stopped to be donated and transplanted
  • Eyes have to be taken within 24 hours after death
  • Tissue and bone can be taken up to 48 hours after death
  • Organs are never removed until death has been confirmed in line with strict criteria
  • You can choose to donate as a living donor
  • Organs cannot be bought and sold
  • All major religions are open to the principles of organ donation

We hope this guide has been illuminating and answered some of your questions regarding organ donation in the UK. With over 150 years’ experience, AK Lander boasts a long, distinguished and successful history in the memorial and bespoke headstones masonry business. For more information, contact us today.

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