Back
Everything you need to know about the organ donation process
Table of contents

If you’ve begun to give thought to your end-of-life plans, you may be drafting a will or choosing a memorial. But one area many of us overlook when end-of-life planning is the option to register for organ donation. This refers to the process of donating your organs after you pass away to help save a life. 

While organ donation can profoundly benefit those in need, some people are hesitant to become a donor. They may not be sure about how it works or have unanswered questions about the organ donation process. For example, maybe you’re worried about the quality of medical care you’ll receive if you decide to donate. Or perhaps you don’t know how to register to become a donor. And what about your organs, how can you know if they are viable?

We understand that deciding to donate your organs is a deeply personal choice, and it’s important to know all the ins and outs before you make your final decision. That’s why we’ve provided a helpful organ donation guide below. 

To be clear, while there are opportunities for you to donate organs while you’re still living, for the sake of this guide, we’ll focus solely on the deceased organ donation process. 

What’s organ donation? 

Organ donation is the process of donating your organs after you pass away. It involves a medical team surgically removing your organs, eyes, and/or tissue and transplanting them into the body of someone in need. Your organs can help save a life or enhance the well-being of someone who’s sick. 

What does being an organ donor mean?

Being an organ donor means you have registered and agreed to donate your organs after you pass away. It also means you’ve decided to help save a life — or many lives for that matter. Research suggests just one organ donor can save up to eight lives, while a tissue donor can benefit an estimated 75 patients. 

What’s the importance of organ donation? 

In the U.S. alone, more than 100,000 people are on the transplant waiting list in need of an organ donation. And sadly, 75 people die every day waiting for a match because there are far more people on the waitlist than there are on the donor registry list. With so many people in need of organ transplants, organ donation gives those who pass away an opportunity to give the gift of life. 

What’s more, many families of organ donors say they find peace in knowing that their deceased loved one helped better someone’s life. By donating your organs, you can potentially offer comfort to your friends and family, helping them cope with their grief. 

If you’re an organ donor, what happens after you die? 

Deciding to be an organ donor does not diminish the level of care you will receive when you require medical care. The medical teams treating you will do everything they can to save your life. 

That said if you’re a registered organ donor and a doctor determines that you’re brain dead, meaning you have no brain activity and no chance of recovery, your doctor will reference your advanced care directive or reach out to a family member who can make medical decisions for you. If it’s decided that you should be removed from life support, the doctor will then notify the local Organ Procurement Organization (OPO). These non-profit organizations are responsible for recovering donors’ organs but also for providing support to donor families. 

At this stage, the medical staff will likely put you on life support so that blood continues to flow to your vital organs. Once the OPO arrives, they’ll confirm your organ donor status and explain your final wishes to your family or next of kin. If you aren’t a registered donor, your family can offer their consent to donate your organs at this time. 

From here, the OPO team will evaluate your health and assess your social and medical history. After determining that you’re a viable candidate, the team will contact the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), a database used to find a patient match for your organs. Time is of the essence, but if they find a suitable match, a surgical team will remove your organs. The OPO team will then transport and deliver them to the recipient in need. 

After this process is completed, your family can follow the rest of your end-of-life plans, which might entail having the body taken to a funeral home or a cremation provider. There will be no visible signs of organ donation on your body, so you can still have an open-casket funeral if that’s what you wish. 

How do you become an organ donor?

You can become an organ donor by registering through your state registry, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), or the iPhone Health app. 

If you want to sign up online, visit organdonor.gov and select the state you live in from the drop-down list. From here, the website will direct you to your state’s registration website, where you can fill out and submit your form. To do so, you’ll need your driver’s license number or ID number, along with your contact information. 

To register through the DMV, you can register in person at your local DMV location or make the decision by checking the box on your driver's license application or renewal form. 

Another option is to register through the iPhone Health app. Using your iPhone, navigate to the Health app and set up your Medical ID. You should see the organ donation section with a “Sign Up with Donate Life” option, which lets you register through the organization Donate Life America

All three of these methods will ensure you are added to the donor registry. 

Are there different types of organ donation?

Yes, there are four types of organ donation, including:

  • Deceased donation: This refers to the kind of donation we’ve discussed in this guide: donating your organs, eyes, and tissue after death. 
  • Living donation: Unlike deceased donation, a living donation means you can donate certain organs — or parts of your organs — while you’re still alive. Of course, this kind of donation only includes organs you can live without, such as a piece of your liver or one of your kidneys. 
  • Tissue donation: This is the same as donating your organs, except it refers specifically to your body tissue, such as bone and skin. 
  • Pediatric donation: This type of organ donation deals with child donors only. Studies show children usually respond better to child-sized organs, so these donations are typically reserved for other children. 

Are there any restrictions involving who can and can’t donate?

No, anyone can sign up to be an organ donor, regardless of your age, sex, nationality, or health history. 

It’s only after your death that the medical team will evaluate your organs based on medical criteria to determine if they’re viable. While one of your organs may not be eligible, another one might be. 

Typically, there are only a few circumstances in which you couldn’t donate at all, such as if you were suffering from a severe disease like viral meningitis or active tuberculosis or had actively spreading cancer that could compromise the health of the organ receiver. 

Does it cost money to donate your organs?

No, it doesn’t cost the donor or the donor’s family any money to donate organs. Any incurred costs, such as the surgery or tests, are usually covered by the organ recipient’s insurance.

Is the organ donation process different state by state?

Every state has its own organ donation registry, so you’ll need to sign up with your state’s specific registry. 

As for the process of organ donation, some rules and regulations may vary by state. For example, in some states, those under 18 need the permission of a legal guardian before they can decide to be an organ donor. 

Can my family override my decision to donate my organs? 

No. Your decision to donate your organs is legally binding, and no one can override your decision after your death. However, as mentioned above, if you are under 18, your parents may need to provide their consent. Regardless of your age, it’s important to discuss your final wishes with your family so they know what to expect and how to properly honor your decision. 

When giving your end-of-life plans some thought, consider whether organ donation is the right choice for you. Deciding to donate your organs is not only a beautiful opportunity to give the gift of life, but it can also be a powerful addition to your legacy and provide comfort to your loved ones.