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Thinking of Being an Organ Donor? Here's What You Need to Know

Laura Bogart's work has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Tin House, SPIN, Indiewire, GOOD, and Refinery 29 (among other publications). She has also worked in health care communications.

There's so much more to organ donation than what we see on medical dramas

We’ve all seen organ-donation stories play out in our favorite medical dramas: Our intrepid and improbably hot young doctors race against the clock to deliver the heart or liver or kidneys from a young and improbably hot accident victim — a super-fit bike messenger who careened into the wrong intersection most often — to an ailing, sallow-faced patient.

Or maybe we’ve heard all about it from the loudmouth neighbor who’s invited themselves over to watch said medical drama and who insists quite vociferously, "You know, if you have ‘organ donor’ checked on your ID, they won’t try to save you.”

The truth is both the high-rated medical drama and your neighbor are wrong: You don’t have to run the decathlon to donate your organs, and if you’re ever rushed to the emergency room, the medical teams will of course do their best to revive you.

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April is National Donate Life Month, and it commemorates the greatest gift one human being can give another — the gift of another tomorrow. Yet organ donation is often unfairly stigmatized by damaging myths — the first and perhaps most damaging myth is that you must lose your life before you can give life to someone else.

Dr. Bryan Becker, physician and chief medical officer at DaVita Integrated Kidney Care tells SheKnows, "Living kidney donation can not only provide faster access to transplantation but also has been associated with better long-term transplant kidney survival and a reduced risk of kidney-transplant rejection.”

He says the most common myths about living organ donation are that donors must be related and that making a living donation is risky. “One in 4 living donors aren’t biologically related to the recipient,” he says, citing the advancements of medical technology, especially “the evolution of immunosuppressants [antirejection drugs].” Becker is quick to add that an organ-donation surgery is about as safe as any other kind of surgery (all of which carry certain risks) and that certain procedures can be performed laparoscopically.

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One of the most useful aspects of living donation (beyond, well, the living part) is that you can speak with other donors to make a truly informed decision.

“It is important to take an active role in seeking information and consulting with your local transplant team should you be eligible to become a living donor,” Becker advises. “Talk with your family and friends as you carefully consider the physical, emotional and financial implications of becoming a living donor.”

However, even posthumous donations come with their share of untrue stereotypes — the most obvious being that only people in peak physical condition can be organ donors.

“What someone is able to donate is determined at the time and circumstances of death," Andi O’Malley, community relations director at the LifeCenter Organ Donor Network, tells SheKnows. For example, someone with active cancer could potentially be a cornea donor. And in order to be a tissue donor, the patient does not have to have to be in the hospital on a ventilator — they could have died on the scene in a car accident.

Dr. David Klassen, physician and chief medical officer for the United Network for Organ Sharing, tells SheKnows he concurs, adding, “There have been a number of liver donors in their 90s. And very few medical conditions are absolute rule-outs.” The United Network for Organ Sharing’s website also states, “[O]rgan donation is consistent with the beliefs of most major religions.”

The other big scene we’re likely to find in one of those medical dramas (other than the residents canoodling, of course) is a prospective donor’s family member forcefully refusing to let our heroes harvest those lifesaving organs. According to Gail Rubin, a certified thanatologist (or death educator) and author of A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and Kicking the Bucket List: 100 Downsizing and Organizing Things to Do Before You Die, a next-of-kin does have the right to deny the donation.

“Your closest next-of-kin… will likely be in a state of shock, and your wishes may not be honored unless you’ve had a serious conversation about this in advance,” Rubin tells SheKnows. “Don’t be afraid to talk about these issues. As I like to say, ‘Talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, and talking about funerals and end-of-life issues won’t make you dead.’”

Organ donation may not be on the top of our minds (unless, of course, we’re writers on those medical dramas), but it’s important to learn the truth about this amazing resource and to consider giving more than just an organ, but a chance at new life.

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