Can someone donate organs while still alive?

Can someone donate organs while still alive?
Last article, we talked about organ donation, focusing primarily on deceased donors.  Most organ and tissue donations do occur after the donor has died. However, some organs and tissues can be donated while the donor is alive.  This week, I wanted to talk more about the living donation process. 

Organ donations from living donors accounts for about 4 out of every 10 donations.  Most living donations occur among family members or between close friends.  Some people become altruistic living donors by making the choice to donate to someone they don’t know at all.  In 2018, there were approximately 6,800 organ donations from living donors.

What organs or tissues can be donated by a living donor?

Organs may include:

  • One of two kidneys – The most frequently donated organ from a living donor.
  • One of two lobes of the liver – Cells in the remaining lobe of the donor’s liver, and the donated lobe within the recipient, grow or regenerate until the liver is almost its original size. 
  • One lung or part of a lung, part of a pancreas, or part of the intestines – These organs do not regenerate, but the donated portion and the donor’s remaining portion can fully function.

Tissues may include:

  • Skin – after surgery that removes skin, such as abdominoplasty
  • Bone – after a knee or hip replacement
  • Healthy cells from bone marrow or umbilical cord blood
  • Blood – including white and red blood cells, platelets, or plasma

Both blood and bone marrow can be easily replaced by your body, and both can be donated more than once for that reason.  Routine blood donation can be done as often as every 8 weeks.

What impacts the decision to donate an organ?  

  • Living organ donors should be physically fit, in good health, between ages 18-60, and should not have (or have had) diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or heart disease.
  • There are risks involved with living organ donation, some donations involve more risk than others.  When making the decision about becoming a living donor, that risk should be weighed against the benefit of saving the recipient, who may be a loved one. 
  • There may also be a financial concern, because surgery to remove a kidney requires time off work, sometimes with delays due to unforeseen problems related to that surgery.
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is conducting a study to collect information on the outcomes of living donors over time.  Currently, the evidence indicates that living donors, on average, have done very well over the long term.  However, the long term effects are not completely known at this time. 

What about bone marrow donation?

Bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure that takes place in a hospital operating room, under anesthesia.  Doctors use needles to withdraw liquid bone marrow from the back of your pelvic bone.  The hospital stay is typically less than a day, but occasionally overnight for observation.  There are few risks, but side effects are fairly common.  They include back or pelvic pain and fatigue.  The side effects are generally well-tolerated.  The median time to recover fully is 20 days.

What about blood donation?
Blood donation, as well as donation of platelets or plasma, carries very little risk.  The process is an easy one, and generally takes very little time.  If you are healthy, this can be a very nice way to give back to your community.  It is very rewarding to know that you are helping others in this way.

If you have questions about becoming a living donor or just want to learn more, you can use this link to find more information https://www.organdonor.gov/about/process/living-donation.html or just Ask Hanna, if you have any more questions, our health advisors are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor
Image: ©Shutterstock / SewCream

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