April is National Donate Life Month, an opportunity to honor the lifesaving gifts of organ, eye and tissue donation and encourage people to register as a donor. Currently, 2,300 of our neighbors in Minnesota are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant and about 30% are people of color. This month, we’re asking Minnesotans who are not yet registered to join the donor registry and say yes to saving lives. Read on to learn more about the process of donation and how you can make a difference.

The donation process

Have you ever wondered how the organ donation process works? Registering to be a donor is a selfless decision to share the gift of life. Organ donation and transplantation is a unique area of medicine – you can’t simply schedule a transplant like other surgeries. Another person, often a stranger, donates at the end of their life. That’s why it’s called a gift, and that selfless decision is protected by law through the Anatomical Gift Act.

LifeSource is the organization that manages organ donation in Minnesota. Getting the facts about donation and understanding the process can help you feel confident in your decision to register as a donor. The impact is incredible: one person could save more than 75 lives!

Several things must happen for organ donation to be possible. First, a person must have a life-ending injury and be connected to a ventilator that is keeping their heart and lungs functioning artificially. In these cases, the hospital contacts LifeSource who evaluates to see if there is potential for donation.

Next, someone from LifeSource talks to the family about donation. If the person was a registered donor, LifeSource walks the family through the donation process to fulfill their loved one’s decision. If they were not registered, their next of kin is asked to make a decision on their behalf, and the family takes time to think and ask questions before they decide. The process is easier for families if the patient is already registered as a donor and/or if the family had previously discussed donation.

Next, specialized medical professionals from LifeSource will evaluate them in the hospital. This evaluation involves drawing blood for infectious disease testing, lab tests to determine the health of their organs, and possibly some imaging tests (CAT scans, X-rays, etc.).

Because so many things must happen for donation to be possible, only 1% of people registered meet these criteria to become organ donors. Donation is considered a rare and truly special gift.

After medical information is gathered, it’s put in a database under an anonymous identifier. The database matches the donor with candidates on the national waiting list based on blood type, tissue type, need and location. The sickest recipients are listed first.

Join the donor registry!

Once recipients are identified, the LifeSource coordinator at the donor’s hospital arranges a time that works for all parties involved – the donor’s family, recipients, surgeons and hospital staff. Often, recipients are prepped for surgery and under anesthesia while the donor’s surgery is taking place to minimize the amount of time the organ is outside of the body.

Once recovery is complete, tissue and eye donation take place if the person meets criteria to become a tissue and eye donor. Then the donor is transported to the funeral home to prepare for their service. LifeSource coordinates this transfer.

Throughout the process, LifeSource provides care and support to the donor’s family. Care and grief support events and resources are available to families through an aftercare program in the months and years following donation.

Your Questions, Answered

Check out the helpful donation FAQs below, and remember that regardless of your age, race, religion, or health, everyone can join the donor registry and share the gift of life.

What does joining the donor registry mean?

When you register as an organ, eye and tissue donor you are making a legal decision that will be honored after your death. It’s important to talk with your family so they can be aware and prepared to honor your decision.

Who can register to donate?

Every individual has the right to sign up to donate their organs, eyes and tissues at the time of their death. Anyone can register. Your age or health does not prevent you from registering. Most health conditions do not prevent donation and age is not a factor – the oldest organ donor was 95. Medical advances now allow people with chronic conditions, cancer, HIV and hepatitis to donate. Don’t rule yourself out – check the box.

What if I don’t document my decision?

If you don’t decide prior to your death whether or not you want to become an organ, eye and tissue donor, your loved ones will have the opportunity to make that decision on your behalf. Therefore, it is incredibly important to document your decision and share your decision with your loved ones.

How does the waiting list work?

When it comes to waiting for a transplant, we are all created equal. Wealthy or famous individuals cannot and do not get bumped up higher on the national transplant waiting list.

These factors are used to determine the best candidate for an available organ:

  • Blood type
  • Body size
  • Severity of patient’s medical condition
  • Distance between the donor’s hospital and the patient’s hospital
  • The patient’s waiting time
  • Whether the patient is healthy enough for surgery

Looking for more information? Read more frequently asked questions and join the donor registry.