Each day, about 22 people die waiting for an organ transplant. But despite growing awareness around traditional organ donation, there is still a large gap between the number of people waiting and the number of organs available.
Most people think of organ donation as a designation on their driver’s license and something that might happen after they die. However, there are some organs and body tissues that can actually be donated while you’re living.
“There are almost 120,000 very sick people waiting for organs at any given time. When a living donation is made it potentially saves two people’s lives: one who receives an organ and the next person on the waiting list,” said Anil Kotru, M.D., a transplant surgeon at Geisinger Health System.
Donating part of an organ or tissue is called a living donation. Here’s what can be donated while you’re still living.
- A kidney. This is the most common donation from a living donor. Kidney donors need to be healthy, with no risk of kidney disease or other health issues that would increase the risk of kidney disease in the future.
- One lobe of the liver. Typically, 40 to 60 percent of the donor’s liver is removed for an adult to adult transplant, but smaller portions can be donated for pediatric patients. It begins regenerating almost immediately.
- Part of a lung. Two donors may contribute two partial lobes to a recipient who is too sick to remain on the waiting list.
- Part of a pancreas. In rare cases, part of a pancreas may be donated to someone with type 1 diabetes. The organ doesn’t regenerate; however, most donors have no problem with reduced function.
- Part of an intestine. This is rare, but possible. Intestine transplant is often done in conjunction with a liver transplant.
- Skin. A skin donation is sometimes done after an abdominoplasty, or tummy tuck.
- Bone. Living donations of bone sometimes occur after knee or hip replacement surgery.
- Bone marrow or umbilical cord blood. Blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma or sickle cell anemia can be treated with bone marrow or umbilical cord blood donations.
- Amnion. This innermost layer of the placenta can be donated after birth to treat wounds that won’t heal and sports injuries, and can be used during eye and dental procedures.
There are three types of living donation: Most living organ and tissue donations occur between relatives or close friends. This is called a directed donation.
If a donor offers up an organ or tissue without knowing the recipient, it’s called a non-directed or altruistic donation.
Finally, in cases where a kidney donor and recipient are not a match for donation, a paired donation may be done.
“If a donor and recipient aren’t matches, there are organizations that help to find another donor-recipient pair who are a match and ‘swap’ matching kidneys to create a paired donation,” said Dr. Kotru.
To become a living donor, you must be between 18 and 65, healthy without ever having had diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure which is difficult to control, heart disease or kidney disease.
Before the donation takes place, you’ll undergo a thorough physical and psychological evaluation. The process can be a rewarding experience; however, there are still risks involved.
“The same risks associated with any major surgery apply to those becoming living donors, such as infection, blood clots, hemorrhaging or side effects associated with anesthesia, in addition to other rare complications,” said Dr. Kotru.
In addition, there could be a financial impact. Though the recipient’s health insurance typically covers the donor’s expenses, the donor may not be able to return to work right away, especially if there are any complications.
As with any organ donation, there is a chance that it may not work right away, or at all. This is another issue that a potential living donor needs to weigh before moving forward with a donation.
“If a donation doesn’t work, it could make a donor feel sad or anxious, and it could negatively affect the relationship between the donor and recipient,” said Dr. Kotru. “Above all, it’s important for people considering living donation to ask as many questions as possible to make an informed decision. In most cases, people who become donors feel honored to have helped improve the lives of other people.”
Anil Kotru, M.D., is a surgeon in Geisinger’s Department of Transplantation and Liver Surgery. He sees patients in Wilkes-Barre, Danville and State College, Pennsylvania. You can make an appointment by calling 877-821-8613.