Organ donation: Everything you need to know

Anna Walker 30 November -0001

Just one organ donor can save or transform up to nine lives through transplants, and even more if they also donate their tissue. Here's everything you need to decide if registering as a donor is the right option for you. 

Why do we need organ donors?

organ donors

Between 2014-2015 more than 4,400 people’s lives were saved or improved through organ transplants, and yet the number of people joining the organ donor register has dropped for the first time in 11 years. 7,000 people are currently on the waiting list for an organ donation.

The organ donor register is a confidential national database that holds the details of around 21 million people who have expressed a desire to donate their organs when they die.

This number might sound large, but only around 5,000 people per year die in circumstances which means their organs are suitable for donation. This makes it all the more important for as many people as possible to join the register.

If you're unsure about donating it may be helpful to ask yourself: Would I be willing to accept an organ donation for myself or a loved one?

If your answer is yes, perhaps you should consider becoming a donor yourself. 



What does organ donation entail?

organ donation

Specialist health professionals decide which organs and tissues are most suitable, considering factors such as the individual's medical and travel history. 

The organs need to be removed as quickly as possible to prevent them from becoming damaged by a lack of oxygenated blood. 

The most common organs to be transplanted are the:

  • Kidney
  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Lungs

But it might also include the pancreas, small bowel or tissues such as the cornea, heart valves, skin and bone.

Donation after death is the most common source of a transplant organ, but it's not the only one.

Living organ donation was once only possible for direct family members, but that’s no longer the case. People can now volunteer organs they can live without (such as the second kidney) to a complete stranger. 

If you decide to become a living organ donor, you will first be subject to extensive questioning, to ensure that you are fully aware of any risks, and aren’t making the decision based on potential financial gain.

For Welsh citizens…

At the start of 2015 Wales moved to a soft opt-out system for organ donation meaning that any Welsh citizen over the age of 18 will be considered as a consenting organ donor unless they have opted out. 

To qualify for this law, a citizen would need to have died in Wales and lived in the country for a minimum of 12 months previously. 



What restrictions are there?

It might surprise you to hear that age is not a factor in registering to become an organ donor. Many people in their 70s and 80s have become donors and saved lives. The oldest cornea donor for example, was 104 years old. 

People who are at risk of spreading an infection through donation, or those who have had cancer in the past 12 months, are restricted from joining the organ donation register. Besides this, very few medical conditions actually prevent people. 

Most religions in the UK are supportive of organ donation. If you're unsure, the NHS has detailed advice about the stance of each faith on organ donation.


give a heart


Family restrictions

Even if you’ve registered as an organ donor, your family or next of kin can still block your decision after your death. In 2015, approximately 1,200 people missed out on potentially life-saving transplants as a result of this.

Speaking to the BBC about this growing problem, the NHS Blood and Transplant director, Sally Johnson, said, “People who join the register want and expect to become organ donors. We do not want to let them down.”

It is important to have a frank conversation with your loved ones and inform them that you plan to donate your organs after you die.



Where do my organs go?

where do my organs go
Eastenders star Pooja Shah with Alia Rashid, specialist nurse in organ donation and Jane's brother Lloyd. Image via Your Local Guardian

When 29-year-old Jane from Purley died in a road accident, her organs were used to help the lives of five people in need of transplants. Her brother Lloyd said, “What have you got to lose by signing up? If you end up a potential donor you won’t need your organs. It is something positive for your loved ones to hold on to, which I personally did after my sister donated.” 

11-year-old Rhys nearly died when he suffered a heart attack. Just 24 hours after joining the donation list, a match was found and he underwent a heart transplant. “Rhys got the greatest gift ever thanks to the selflessness of an individual and their family", his mother Rowena said. "A day doesn’t go by when we don’t appreciate how lucky we are to still have our son, and our thoughts and thanks are always with his donor and their family.” 

Others in need of transplants aren’t so lucky. By signing up to become an organ donor, you could help someone like seven-year-old Matthew, who has been waiting for a donor since he was diagnosed with a rare kidney condition at just five weeks old. A match is yet to be found.

His mum Nicola said, “At the moment it feels a bit like all hope is lost… We want more people to come forward and understand the need for donors… not just for Matthew, but for all the families we know are going through what we are.”



How do I sign up?

Signing up to become an organ donor couldn’t be easier. The simplest way is to visit the NHS organ donation website. Their registration form takes just two minutes to complete. If you feel strongly about not donating your organs, this is also the place to officially register your intent not to donate.

If you would rather sign up in person, you can get a form through your GP surgery or local hospital.

Alternatively, call the free NHS donor line on 0300 123 23 23, or text SAVE to 62323. 



Alternative ways to donate

1. Give blood

The NHS requires over 6,000 blood donations every day in order to treat patients in need across the UK. Most people between the ages of 17 and 65 are elidgile to give blood. Donations take between just 5 and 10 minutes. Visit the NHS blood website for more details.


2. Bone marrow

Sometimes patients of illnesses such as leukaemia or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma's bone marrow becomes damaged or diseased to the extent that it stops functioning. When a match is not available within the immediate family, doctors turn to the British Bone Marrow Registry or Anthony Nolan Trust register for matches. You can learn more about the procedure here. 


3. Donating your body to science

While training, medical professionals benefit hugely from those who donate their bodies for use after their death. In the UK, around 700 people per year choose to donate in this way. Donating your body can help scientists towards finding cures for diseases, and to understand the human body better.

When the bodies are no longer needed, it is common for the medical school to hold a final memorial service.

Professor Alan Horgan of Newcastle Surgical Training Centre told a Channel 5 team, “Without people donating their bodies, we would have to rely on simulators, or trainees practising on live patients in the operation room.”

If you wish to do this, you will need to contact your local medical school. You can find a list of the schools accepting donations here.