Organ donor programs allow individuals to give a gift of life and health to those with serious illnesses or injuries. Hearts, livers, lungs and corneas are some of the body parts most often in demand. While most donations of vital organs take place after death, there are living donor programs for those wishing to contribute blood products, healthy bone marrow and kidneys. It is also possible for families of donors to meet recipients and see how their gift has made a difference.
Hearts and other organs considered absolutely essential to life cannot be taken from a living donor and must be harvested after clinical death. This is usually defined by a complete lack of brain activity, although the body can be kept alive indefinitely by machines and medication. People who have sustained irreversible brain damage but whose bodies are still intact make good candidates for organ donor programs. Once the decision is made, the machines are turned off and medication is discontinued. Removal takes place an operating room, where once the heart has stopped, organs can be removed for immediate transport to the recipient.
Many people have joined donor programs specializing in blood products, and visit them on a regular basis. Whole blood can be separated into plasma, red cells, white cells and platelets, all of which can be used by doctors to treat various conditions. Donors may also give only plasma, the clear liquid part of blood. This is extracted from the blood in a process called apharesis, separated and then the remainder is given back to the donor.
Kidneys are commonly donated with few ill effects, and bone marrow donor programs pair matching donors with patients who have disorders such as leukemia and lymphoma. The liver is a regenerative organ and parts of it can be safely donated in some circumstances. Living donor programs require registration, and the donor must keep contact information updated in case a match is found. Programs usually have social workers who can help donors work out the financial aspects and arrange aftercare.
Interested persons can enroll in either living donor programs or designate loved ones to ensure their wishes to donate are carried out after their deaths. While most donations are anonymous, increasingly programs are allowing recipients to meet with the family of a donor. This gives them a chance to express their thanks for saving the life of a loved one, and can be comforting to those who have lost loved ones as well.