When you last renewed your driver's license, you may have checked the box to become an organ donor. Or you may have skipped it. And you may have chosen either option without thinking about it too much, or without truly understanding the decision you were making.

Choosing whether to be an organ donor is certainly a personal decision, but it really is a heroic one - and one that you, as an individual, can make on your own.

"In many ways, being an organ donor is one of the greatest gifts you can give," said Dr. Michael R. Marvin, director of transplantation and liver surgery for Geisinger. "It's a very selfless act because you most likely won't know the recipients, but by choosing to donate, you are saving or improving the lives of many people."

One organ and tissue donor can save and enhance the lives of up to 50 people. An organ donor can give a second chance at life to up to eight people. Through tissue donation, a donor can enhance the lives of countless others through bone donations to repair fractures and prevent amputations, skin donations to heal burn patients and heart valve donations to repair life-threatening defects. Donors can also donate their corneas, which can give the gift of sight to recipients.

Last year, more than 30,000 organ transplants were performed in the United States.

"Even with all of our success, there is still work to do in educating the public about the critical need to register more organ and tissue donors," Dr. Marvin said. "The statistics are frightening. Currently in the United States, 21 people on average die each day because there aren't enough life-saving organs available for transplant."

According to the Gift of Life Donor Program, over 8,400 Pennsylvanians are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Residents who have a driver's license or state identification card can go online and add the donor designation to their record. You can also register online at www.donors1.org.

"You no longer have to wait until you renew your driver's license or state identification card. It's a quick and easy process to register online," Dr. Marvin said.

How organ donation works

Organ donation only occurs after an individual has been declared dead. Typically, organ donors are patients who have been declared dead after having suffered complete and irreversible loss of all brain function. Mechanical ventilation and medications are utilized to continue blood flow to the organs, so they are able to be transplanted. In the United States, less than 1 percent of all deaths occur in a way that allow organ donation to be possible.

There are many myths that may discourage a person from registering as an organ and tissue donor, which is why it's important to know the facts. A common myth is that if you're a designated organ donor, doctors and healthcare providers may not do everything in their power to save your life.

"Healthcare teams and emergency room personnel are committed to saving lives as a first priority. The healthcare professionals caring for patients are not involved in the donation process, and only Gift of Life Donor Program - the region's organ procurement organization - has access to whether you are registered as an organ and tissue donor," Dr. Marvin said.

Specially trained staff members from Gift of Life determine whether the patient is medically suitable to be a donor. If so, Gift of Life will share with the family whether their loved one has already made the decision to be an organ and tissue donor. Or, in the absence of a decision, the family can decide whether to move forward with the donation. Even after donation occurs, the organ procurement organization provides the donor family with support through their grieving process, including bereavement counseling and opportunities to honor their loved one.

"As the donation process moves forward, the donor's blood type, height, weight, the hospital zip code and other data are entered into the national computer system to identify possible recipients for the organs, such as kidneys, pancreas, liver, lungs, heart and intestines," Dr. Marvin said.

Another myth is that if an individual is a donor, they will be unable to have an open casket viewing. The decision to donate will not interfere with burial arrangements. Additionally, costs related to organ and tissue donation are paid by Gift of Life, so the donor's family incurs no expense for donation.