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Myths about organ donation

Thousands of people in the UK are waiting for an organ transplant, their lives on hold while they wait for a phone call to say that a match has been found. Sadly, every day across the UK, someone dies waiting for an organ transplant due to a shortage of organ donors. 

Choosing to donate your organs is a generous and worthwhile decision that can save lives.

Don't be swayed by misinformation. We've answered some of the common myths about organ donation below. 

Watch our myth-busting film 

Specialist nurse, Lucy, answers some of the common organ donation myths and concerns we have heard.

Will doctors try their best to save my life if I'm registered as an organ donor?

Healthcare professionals have a duty of care to save your life first.

If, despite their best efforts, death is inevitable, organ and tissue donation will be considered as end of life care discussions start with your family, friends and next of kin. Only when end of life care planning is started is the NHS Organ Donor Register accessed by healthcare professionals and the possibility of organ donation discussed with the patient’s family.

What is the process for organ donation?

Apart from living donation, organs and/or tissues are only removed for transplantation after a person has died. Death is confirmed by doctors who are entirely independent of the transplant team and is done in the same way for people who donate organs as for those who do not. If organ donation is a possibility, our Specialist Nurses for Organ Donation will check to see whether an individual is on the NHS Organ Donor Register, and the family of a potential donor will always be consulted. 

Could a person still be alive when their organs are removed?

No. There are strict criteria in place in the United Kingdom to help those caring for the dying, by providing safe, timely and consistent criteria for the diagnosis of death. Organs are never removed until the patient’s death has been confirmed in line with these criteria.

Most people do not die in circumstances that make it possible for them to donate their organs. In fact, only around 1 in 100 people who die in the UK are usually able to be donors. Donors are typically those who have died in a hospital intensive care unit or emergency department.

In order for a person to become an organ donor, doctors must first decide if the heart is no longer beating (circulatory death) or if the brain is no longer working (brainstem death). Doctors will confirm the death of a patient as either circulatory or brainstem death before donation can take place.

Is organ donation against my religion?

All the major religions in the UK support the principles of organ donation and transplantation and accept that organ donation is an individual choice. 

You can find out more about different attitudes to organ donation by selecting a faith or belief system below. Alternatively, please consult the adviser from your religion or belief group.

Does organ donation affect funeral arrangements?

The donation operation is performed as soon as possible after death. After donation, the body is always returned to the family of the deceased in the same way as any death in a hospital where donation has not taken place. Families are given the opportunity to spend time with their loved one after the operation if they wish. 

Will donation leave my body disfigured and prevent me having an open-casket funeral?

The donor is treated with the greatest care and respect during the removal of organs and/or tissue for donation. The retrieval of organs takes place in a normal operating theatre under sterile conditions by specialist doctors. Afterwards the surgical incision is carefully closed and covered by a dressing in the normal way.

Tissue can be removed in an operating theatre, mortuary or funeral home. The operation is carried out by specialist healthcare professionals who always ensure that the donor is treated with the utmost respect and dignity. Only those organs and tissue specified by the donor or their family will be removed.

Organ and tissue donation doesn't prevent a donor from having an open-casket funeral. The body is clothed for burial, so there are no visible signs of organ or tissue donation. The operation site is covered with a white surgical dressing like any other abdominal surgery dressing. 

Am I too old for my organs to be donated?

There is no maximum age for joining the register. The decision about whether some or all organs or tissue are suitable for transplant is always made by a medical specialist at the time of donation, taking into account your medical and social history.

We encourage everyone who supports organ donation, regardless of their age, to sign up to the NHS Organ Donor Register and to share their decision with their family.

What is the minimum age for for joining the register?

There is no minimum age. Parents and guardians can register their children, and children can register themselves. Children who are under 12 in Scotland and under 18 in the rest of the UK at the time of registration will require their parent or guardian’s agreement for donation to take place.

Sadly, some children do die and the decision to donate has provided some comfort to whole families, knowing their child went on to help others.

Children require lifesaving organ transplants and they can also be organ donors. Sometimes it is necessary to consider an organ’s size in the matching process, for example small children are more likely to require heart and lungs from child donors.

Aren't there are enough organ donors? Do you need me as well?

Every year around 1,400 people generously donate their organs across the UK when they die and more than 1,000 people donate a kidney or part of their liver while they are alive. Yet still every day across the UK, someone dies waiting for an organ transplant because there are not enough organ donors.

Right now, around 6,000 people in the UK are on the transplant waiting list, but there are many more who would benefit from a transplant. While most people support organ donation in principle, only around a third of people have registered a decision to donate, and less than half have ever talked to somebody about organ donation.

A family is much more likely to agree to donation going ahead if their relative had recorded their decision to donate on the NHS Organ Donor Register or had previously discussed their decision with them.

I have a medical condition. Can I donate?

Having an illness or medical condition doesn’t necessarily prevent a person from becoming an organ or tissue donor. The decision about whether some or all organs or tissue are suitable for transplant is made by a medical specialist at the time of donation, taking into account your medical, travel and social history. Find out more about your eligibility as an organ donor.

I’ve had cancer. Can I donate my organs?

Someone with current active cancer cannot become an organ donor. However, there are certain types of cancers that after three years of treatment, people can donate organs. It still may be possible to donate eyes and some tissue in these circumstances.

The decision about whether some or all organs or tissue are suitable for transplant is always made by a medical specialist at the time of donation, taking into account your medical and social history. 

Do I need to tell my family my organ donation decision? It’s written in my will

By the time your will is read it’s likely to be far too late for you to become a donor. Should you die in circumstances that mean organ donation may be a possibility, medical specialists will discuss organ donation with your next of kin as part of the end of life care discussion. The medical team will consult the NHS Organ Donor Register to establish your donation decision before discussing it with your family. By telling your family you want to be an organ donor in the event of your death you can relieve them of the burden of having to make the decision at such a difficult time. 

So, tell them your decision, let them know you want to be an organ donor. 

Can people buy and sell organs?

No, the transplant laws in the UK absolutely prohibit the sale of human organs or tissue. 

If I’ve registered as an organ donor, will my family have a say about me donating my organs?

We know that in most cases families will agree to donation if they know that was their loved one's decision. If the family, or those closest to the person who has died, object to the donation even when their loved one has given their explicit permission (either by joining the NHS Organ Donor Register or by carrying an organ donor card) or deemed consent applies, healthcare professionals will discuss the matter sensitively with the family. They will be encouraged to accept their loved one's decision and it will be made clear that they do not have the legal right to veto or overrule that decision. There may, nevertheless, be cases where it would be inappropriate for donation to go ahead if donation would cause distress to the family. 

How to become a donor

Join the NHS Organ Donor Register, or
Call us on: 0300 123 23 23