The Gift of Life: What to Know About Organ Donation and Transplant

April marks National Donate Life Month, a time devoted to spreading awareness about the tremendous need for increasing the number of organ, eye and tissue donors. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), more than 120,000 people in the U.S. are on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ, and sadly, more than 21 people die each day waiting for a transplant. For some, becoming a donor and the transplantation process can seem daunting, but the impact on a recipient’s life is invaluable.

Seattle Children’s has one of the best and busiest pediatric transplant centers in the nation, working across a six-state region to provide lifesaving organ transplants for patients. Seattle Children’s Transplant Center is one of the few in the world that performs living donor liver transplants, is one of the top five kidney transplant centers in the U.S. and also has some of the best survival outcomes in the nation for pediatric liver, kidney and heart transplants.

It goes without saying that organ transplantation is a major area of focus at Seattle Children’s, and so here we’re sharing a few key facts to help shed some light on organ donation and the transplantation process:

One donor can impact eight lives
That’s right, one single organ and tissue donor can save or improve the lives of more than eight people, helping to restore eyesight, damaged tissues or vital functions. To give an idea of the impact of organ donors, in 2014, there were 29,532 transplants in the U.S. from just 14,412 donors.

Anyone can be a potential donor
Anyone can be a potential donor regardless of age, race or medical history. Donation professionals review medical history to determine if you can donate. With recent advances in transplantation, more people can donate than ever before.

Adults can also make living donations, meaning that living adults can choose to give an organ, like a kidney, or part of an organ, like a liver, to someone in need.

Donating does not cost anything
There is no cost to a donor’s family for donating organs and tissues. All costs directly related to the organ donation are paid for by the organ procurement agency.

Time is of the essence in organ transplant
Organ transplantation is a highly time-sensitive process mastered by teams of more than 10 medical professionals that includes surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, etc. Once a family has decided to give the gift of life, the complex process begins as one surgeon preps the recipient while another surgeon travels to the donor at another center to procure the organ.

Dr. Jonathan Chen, co-director of the Heart Center and Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgery program, said the transplant process is often a race against the clock and one of the biggest challenges they face is the coordination between hospitals in the organ transfer and delivery process.

“Timing of a transplant is determined by when the donor is identified and the ability to coordinate the transplant among centers, which typically occurs in the middle of the night,” said Chen. “As surgeons, we’re very accustomed to performing transplants in the wee hours.”

Time constraints for transplants also vary depending on the type of organ. Kidneys and livers can last up to 24 hours outside the body before being implanted, but for hearts, the team prefers to perform the transplant within five hours of the organ being secured, and usually no longer than seven. But one unique advantage to hearts is that they grow within the body, giving surgeons the ability to transplant a wider variety of hearts in patients.

“Hearts have a more limited time frame to be outside the body, but they are more flexible when matching donors and recipients by size and age,” said Chen. “For example, a newborn’s heart can grow to the size of an adult heart once it’s transferred.”

Give the gift of life: Become an organ donor
If you’re interested in becoming a donor, please register your wish in the Donate Life Today registry.