Questions about organ donation

The information on this page is based on this leaflet from NHSBT and the Organ and tissue donation Q&A and Bone Marrow Q&A sections of the NHSBT website  Please visit the NHSBT site for more detail and answers to more of your questions.

What is organ donation?
Organ donation happens when organs are taken from dead or living people and given to others whose lives are severely affected by a failed organ. Organs that would otherwise go to waste when a person has died can be given to seriously ill people to dramatically
improve and save their lives.

Organ donation usually occurs after death, but an increasing number of people are also donating their organs (for example, one of their two kidneys, or part of their liver) as a “living donor”.

As an organ donor you can choose to donate some or all of your organs or tissue: kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and the small bowel can all be transplanted, whilst as a tissue donor you can donate skin, tendons, bone, heart valves, cartilage and eyes to repair or rebuild the bodies, faces and lives of thousands of severely injured people.

What is the organ donor register?
The NHS Organ Donor Register is a confidential, computerised database which holds the details of those who have decided that, after their death, they want to donate their organs and/or tissue to others.  Sixteen million people are currently signed up.

In the UK organs and tissue from a potential donor will only be used if that is their known wish. Putting your name on the NHS Organ Donor Register makes it easier for the NHS to establish your decision and for those closest to you to support it.

If your decision is not clear, your next of kin will be asked what they think you would have wanted, so it is important that you make sure they are aware of your views on organ donation.

What will happen if my relatives don’t support my decision?
We know that in most cases families will agree to donation if they know that was their loved one’s wish.

If the family, or those closest to the person who has died, object to the donation even when their loved one has given their explicit permission (either by telling relatives, friends or clinical staff, by joining the Register or by carrying a donor card) healthcare professionals will discuss the matter sensitively with the family. They will be encouraged to accept their loved one’s decision and it will be made clear that they do not have the legal right to veto or overrule that decision. There may, nevertheless, be cases where it would be inappropriate for donation to go ahead if donation would cause distress to the family.

Will doctors still save me if I am a donor?
Yes. Health professionals have a duty of care to try and save life first.  If, despite their efforts, the patient dies, death is confirmed by doctors at consultant level who are entirely independent of the transplant team. Death is confirmed in exactly the same way for people who donate organs as for those who do not. Once death is confirmed, the donation and transplant specialists would be called in.

Does donation leave the body disfigured?
Organs and tissue are always removed with the greatest of care and respect under sterile conditions by specialist healthcare professionals. Afterwards the surgical incision is carefully closed and covered by a dressing in the normal way.

Only those organs and tissue specified by the donor or their family will be removed and donors are treated with the utmost respect and dignity.

Does being a donor cause delays to funeral arrangements?
No. The donation operation is performed as soon as possible after death.

Families are given the opportunity to spend time with their loved one after the operation if they wish and this is facilitated by the specialist nurse. Arrangements for viewing the body after donation are the same as after any death.

Can people buy or sell organs?
The transplant laws in the UK absolutely prohibit the sale of human organs or tissue.

What is bone marrow donation?
Find out more on the NHSBT website

Bone marrow is a soft tissue found in the centre of certain bones in your body, which creates stem cells. Stem cells are the ‘building blocks’, which can grow into any of the other normal blood cells such as red cells, which carry oxygen, white cells, which fight infection, or platelets which stop bleeding.

There are a number of diseases that prevent a patient’s bone marrow from working properly, including leukaemia and other diseases of the immune system. Although chemotherapy successfully treats some patients, for many a stem cell transplant from a healthy donor is the only possibility of a cure.

In about 30% of cases, a matched donor can be found from within the patient’s family, however, the other 70% of patients have to rely on a matched volunteer donor, identified through The British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR).

How do I donate?
There are two possible ways of donating stem cells that you may be asked to consider.

The first, and most common, is to donate stem cells from circulating blood. For four days before donation, you will receive injections to increase the number of stem cells in your blood. On the fifth day, you will be tested to check that there are enough stem cells in your blood, and then connected to a cell-separator machine. The machine collects the stem cells from your blood via a vein in one arm and returns the blood to your body through a vein in your other arm. It does not require general anaesthetic.

The second method is donation of bone marrow itself, which involves the removal of stem cells from your hip bones. This is done using a needle and syringe under a general anaesthetic in a hospital. Although this is not a surgical operation, there will be marks on the skin made by the needle. As there may be some discomfort where the needle has been inserted, you will need to stay in hospital for up to 48 hours and have a period of recovery at home of up to five days.

How can I join the register?
You must be aged 18-49 years and be a blood donor. You can join when you next give blood, or at the same time as your first donation. We will check that there is no medical reason preventing you from being both a blood donor and a stem cell donor.

What about my faith?
Compatibility between organ donation and religious faith is a key issue for many individuals from BAME backgrounds.  This website includes a section which looks at attitudes towards organ donation from the perspective of each of the major religions.

This leaflet from NHSBT provides more detail on organ and stem cell donation and the answers to these and many other questions.