Being a donor or not

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When thinking of your passing, you might also consider what you want to happen to your body. Perhaps you are thinking of donating an organ should the possibility arise or donating your body to science. In this article we give you the low-down on different types of donation, the pros and cons and what it would mean for you and your loved ones.

Different types of body donation

Organ donation

With organ donation, you can save the life of someone else by allowing doctors to take your vital organs right after you die. One deceased donor can save an estimated eight lives. Organs and tissue that can be donated are for instance kidneys, liver, pancreas, heart, lungs, intestines, abdominal wall, scalp, limbs, bones, bone marrow, muscles, facial tissue, reproductive organs and skin. Usually, you can specify which organs you’d like to donate and those matched to recipients are harvested as quickly as possible after you die. In most cases, the body will be returned in time for your funeral. However, these circumstances differ per country.

Different organ donation policies around the world

Around the world there are different policies when it comes to organ donation, varying from opt-in to opt-out, tacit or no policy at all. With an opt-in system, such as in the US, people must actively sign up to a register to donate their organs after death. If a person doesn’t register, the family will make the decision at the time of death. In opt-out systems, such as in Spain, organ donation will occur automatically unless a specific request is made before death for organs not to be taken. In this system, families would have the final say and can overrule their loved one’s wishes to be a donor. In a tacit system, such as The Netherlands, one’s consent is implied by one’s silence. So if you don’t register (opting in or out), you’re automatically a donor. Politically and culturally there is quite some noise around this (still quite novel) subject. It’s a good idea to check what the policy is in your country and which decision lines up with your personal beliefs.

Body donation

There are also other ways that our bodies can be used for medical purposes. Whole bodies can be used for anatomical study at medical or mortuary schools or for forensic research. Specific parts of the body can be used for testing and practicing surgical techniques or treatments.

Full body donation

When you choose for full body donation, you have several options: donating to a medical school or mortuary school. With full body donation to a medical school, the body needs to be transported or refrigerated quickly to prevent any decomposition and then the body undergoes a special preservation process. The medical school uses cadavers typically for about 1-3 years. At that point, the body is generally cremated or buried and remains are returned to the relatives. With full body donation to mortuary schools, they might use your body to teach embalming techniques. After that, typically the body is cremated and the remains are returned to your relatives within a few weeks

Partial body donation

For partial body donation, your body can go to a body broker or tissue bank, where specific portions of your body are matched with requests from medical research teams and educators. The parts can be used for research or testing new medical procedures, tools, and equipment. Partial remains are usually cremated and returned to next-of-kin.

Body donation for forensic research

When you donate your body to a forensic research program, your body can go to a body farm. Your body sometimes also gets accepted if you have already donated parts for transplantation, such as eyes, organs and/or tissue. In this option no remains are returned to the family, since part of the research is observing the natural decomposition of the body. If you are considering any of these options, you might want to research what the purpose of the organisation is and if this sounds like a suitable cause to donate (part of) your body to.

Pros and cons of being a donor

To help you in deciding whether a donor could be something for you, we discuss some pros and cons.

Pros of Becoming a Donor

1. You can save lives

Yes, that is plural. When you choose to be an organ donor, you’re likely not just impacting one person’s life. As a donor, you have the opportunity to save up to eight lives with your:
Heart, Lungs, Liver, Pancreas, Kidneys, Intestines. And that can be even more people if you also decide to donate tissue, eyes, skin, etc.

2. Your death can be more meaningful

For many families, the tragic and untimely death of a loved one lacks meaning and feels senseless. Some would even say their death is “wasteful” as such a young life was wasted when they had so much life left to live. By donating your organs, a death doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it -literally- gives new life. Many families of organ donors say that they were given hope when their loved one’s organs were given to someone in need. Even though there is still a lot of pain that comes with the loss, it allows a loved one’s legacy to live on through the life of the organ recipient.

3. You can pick the right moment

You can choose to become an organ donor at any age. People of all ages need organs, so your body can be useful to someone, no matter what age or health condition you’re in. Only outliers, such as people over 90 or that have active cancer or a systemic infection, are less likely to be suitable as a donor.

So, if you’ve always wanted to help others and thought of donating throughout your life, maybe it makes you feel better to say you donate your body after you die. Or, the other way around, you’ve been (available as) a donor all your life, so you don’t feel the need to donate your body when you die.

Communicating this decision with your loved ones is important, as it can help them make a decision should it be necessary.

4. You can help further medical research

If you don’t want to be buried or cremated, donating your body to science might be a good option. When you do, your body might be used to help medical students train and become doctors or find a cure for certain diseases, which helps even more people in the end.

5. It might be cheaper

Body donation can reduce the costs of final disposition. Most programs will pay to transport your body to the facility. The costs of cremation or burial are generally covered.

6. Good karma

If you believe in karma, doing good or any of the above purposes, donating your body might give you peace of mind. And when you have clarity about your decisions, your relatives and friends might also find peace of mind in your choices once you are gone.

However, being an (organ) donor is not always easy for your loved ones. So, there are also cons to consider when making the choice.

Cons of Becoming an Organ Donor

1. Donating while you’re alive is a health risk

As a living donor, you will undergo surgery, which means that health complications can occur, from excessive bleeding to infection and scarring. There can also be some long-term issues. This might be a reason for you not to donate while you’re alive.

2. You can’t always choose who you’re donating to

If you’re a living donor, you might choose who to give your kidney to, such as to a family member. When you pass away, your organs will go to the most eligible recipient on the waiting list. You or your family won’t get to choose who receives your heart or liver. Family members also may not get to meet the recipient or their families. If organ donation is chosen to provide a legacy, this may be disappointing to your family.

3. A recipient might reject your organ

Organ donation and the medications that help a recipient’s body accept the organ have gotten better and better, but unfortunately, a recipient’s body may still reject the organ. If this is the case, it can be hard on the donor’s family, as it might feel like the organ or body part was “wasted.” In the case where a donor’s family gets to know the recipient, it can be especially painful if, after several months, the transplanted organ fails or is rejected. For the families of donors, it can feel like they’re losing their loved one all over again, this time because the recipient hasn’t been helped permanently by the donated organ.

4. Your body might be rejected

For all types of donations, a thorough medical vetting is required, although requirements vary by program and type of donation. Some programs will not accept very under- or over-weight bodies and most will not take bodies with certain medical conditions, such as hepatitis, HIV, or tuberculosis.

Even with best-laid plans, your body may end up being rejected or be too expensive to transport, so this might come as an extra disappointment. Make sure to have a plan B for if body donation does not work out.

5. The grieving process might be longer or more complicated

When an organ donor passes away, the hospital keeps the deceased person on life support until recipient matches can be found for their organs. This is done to keep blood flowing through the body and the organs alive even though the person is legally and clinically deceased. This can be difficult for family members who must wait until the organs have been taken for the body to be transported and prepared for burial.

In some cases, keeping the person on life support can also provide a false sense of hope that a loved one will somehow get better. This causes an even harder, more complicated situation. Once the organs are removed and the person is taken off of life support, it can feel like the family has to deal with the death of the same person a second time.

6. You might not have a funeral

Most programs will require almost immediate transportation of the body to the facility, which may limit the amount of time your family has to say goodbye.

Although your donated body will not be available for viewing or a conventional funeral, your loved ones can certainly still hold a memorial service. Some programs also perform a memorial service after the body has been used and before it’s cremated. If cremated remains will be returned, ask for the timeframe – it may be several years after your death.

With some programs, a letter can be sent to loved ones explaining what projects benefited from the donation.

7. Families may not agree with the decision

Not all families accept the practice of organ donation and you may find that your family disagrees with your choice. The decision can cause some family members to become upset.

Should you wish to sign up for the national registry of organ donors and your family does not agree with your choice, it’s essential that you express your wishes in writing.

To avoid confusion and arguments at the time of your death, be sure that your funeral wishes are known by all close relatives and friends and that your wishes are notarized in a legally binding document.

Should you become an organ donor?

It is commonly known that the need for healthy organs continues to grow. Your decision to donate is an entirely personal one that should be based on your own values. One thing that’s certain: donating can help others live longer and experience the joy of better health.

Put your decision and messages in Myend

Once you have made a decision on whether or not you’re a donor, make your wishes clear to your family, since they will need to take specific time-sensitive actions after your death. It should also be notarized in a legally binding document.
Aside from that, you can use Myend to provide extra support to your loved ones. Make sure your decision is clear, so they know the right steps have been taken.

Also, it might help to write some specific words of encouragement when you choose for donation, as the donation of your body might make saying goodbye to you extra challenging. Make sure to be there for them, whatever your choice is ❤️