August 24, 2012
Dear Mayo Clinic:
Is there an age that is too old to be an organ donor? Also, is marking "organ donor" on my driver's license the only thing I need to do to become a donor, or would my family still be allowed to make a different decision?
Almost everyone can be an organ donor, no matter what your age. Specifying your choice to be a donor when you renew your driver's license or adding your name to your state's donor registry is all you need to do. However, it is a good idea to talk to your family, too, so they know what you want.
There is a critical need for donated organs. Every day, about 75 people in the United States get an organ transplant. About 130 new people are put on transplant waiting lists each day. At this time, more than 114,000 people in this country need an organ transplant, but not everyone can get a transplant, because there are not enough donors.
Living donor transplants are popular options for liver and kidney transplantation. Each of us has two kidneys. We only need one for our bodies to work properly, making living donor kidney transplants a viable option for many people. Living donor liver transplants work well because the liver is an organ that can regenerate itself. A portion of the liver is removed for transplant. The remaining liver grows to the right size in the donor as does the piece in the transplant recipient.
Most often, organs for transplants come from deceased donors. Although it is possible that some organs may not work as well from older donors, everyone has the potential to become an organ donor. In fact, donated livers often come from people in their 70s and 80s, and these older donor livers work well.
On the other end of the spectrum, no one is too young to become an organ donor, either. Children younger than 18 do not have the authority to make a legal decision about their organ donation status, but many children and teens feel strongly about donating their organs. It is important for families to have conversations about organ donation and for parents to listen to what their children have to say. We find that parents of deceased children are some of the strongest advocates for organ donation. For many families, it is one of the few things that brings some comfort out of the tragedy of losing a child.
Keep in mind, too, that health problems should not keep anyone from choosing to be an organ donor. Some chronic health conditions may prevent certain organs from being donated. That does not mean other organs can't be successfully transplanted.
When you decide to become an organ donor, the simplest way to register is when you renew your driver's license. Most states also have an online organ donation registry where you can sign up.
Your donor designation is a legally binding decision. That means your wishes will be carried out after you die, even if your family does not agree with them. It is important to make sure your family knows you want to be an organ donor, though. Talk with them about your reasons for wanting to be a donor, so they understand why it is important to you. Doing so can help make the process smoother and easier for them during a difficult time.
Right now, people on the transplant waiting lists are dying because there are not enough organs for everyone who needs them. Organ transplantation is very successful, but donor organ availability is absolutely critical to its success. Making the decision to become an organ donor can be a decision that saves lives. To register as an organ donor today, visit Donate Life America at www.donatelifeamerica.org.
— Charles Rosen, M.D., Transplant Center, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.