Frequently asked questions
Many questions arise when people are considering or participating in deceased organ donation. Here are answers to commonly asked questions.
What is organ and tissue donation?
Organ and tissue donation is a life-saving and life-transforming medical process where organs/tissues are removed from a donor and transplanted into someone who is very ill or dying from organ failure. Tissue donation also provides the opportunity to improve another person’s quality of life.
What is kidney transplantation?
A transplant is a treatment for chronic kidney disease but is not a cure. A transplant potentially offers a more active life and a longer life, free from dialysis as well as dietary restrictions. You can have a transplant if you are medically suitable and stable on dialysis. If the transplant is from a living donor, the operation can often be done before dialysis starts.
Why do people need transplants?
People requiring organ transplants are usually very ill or dying because their own organ is failing. They range from young babies and children through to older people. Some need transplants because they are born with a physical problem or a disease that causes organ failure. Others may have contracted a disease or acquired an injury. Organ transplants can save lives.
People needing tissue transplants can also be of any age. In some cases, tissues can save lives. More often, they greatly improve the recipients’ lives.
Are kidney transplants successful?
Kidney transplants are very successful. Over 94 per cent of transplants are working one year later. Staying fit and as healthy as possible helps you remain suitable for a transplant and aids your recovery. It is a good idea to have regular health and dental checks as well as maintaining your:
- recommended fluid and dietary restrictions
- ideal body weight for your age and size (people who are overweight are at increased risk of problems during surgery)
- dialysis schedule
- regular fitness or exercise plan.
Which organs and tissues can be donated?
Organs that can be transplanted in Australia are:
Sometimes, people need more than one organ transplant, such as a pancreas and a kidney. Tissues that can be transplanted in Australia are:
- cornea (clear film on the front of the eye)
- heart valves
Why is organ and tissue donation important?
One donor can save the lives of up to ten people and significantly improve the lives of dozens more. There are currently about 1,700 Australians waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. The average waiting time ranges from one year for a liver transplant to almost four years for a kidney transplant.
Who can donate organs and tissues?
Anyone can register as a donor. Even elderly people and those with chronic health conditions can be donors. Only a few medical conditions prevent organ donation. Each case is assessed individually at the time.
People can either become donors when they die (deceased donor), or they can arrange to have a kidney or part of their liver donated while they are still alive (living donor). Living donations are usually made by those wanting to save the life of someone they know.
Why should I discuss donation with my family, partner or close friend?
Your family, partner, or close friend will be an important part of the donation process. They may be asked about your decision to be an organ/tissue donor to confirm that you had not changed your mind since you recorded your consent (or objection).
They may also be asked questions regarding your medical history, to determine which organs/tissues may be suitable for transplantation. For as many people as possible to become potential organ and tissue donors, every family needs to ask their loved ones about organ donation, and know their decisions.
How do I become a donor?
There are two main steps to becoming an organ or tissue donor:
Discuss your decision with your family.
Register on the Australian Organ Donor Register > or for further information phone 1800 777 203. Even if you have ticked ‘yes’ to organ donation on your driver’s licence, make sure you are on the register.
Note that even if a deceased person had registered their wish on the Australian Organ Donor Register, consent from their senior available next of kin will always be requested. That’s why it’s important to discuss your decision with your family.
How does the organ and tissue donation process work?
When someone dies in a situation where they can be an organ or tissue donor, the hospital medical team makes a number of assessments and follows a series of steps:
- The possibility of donation is raised with the family.
- The Australian Organ Donor Register is checked. If the person has registered ‘no’, then donation will not proceed. If the person has registered ‘yes’ or made no registration, a medical staff member will discuss donation with the family.
- The family is given time to make a decision. If they agree to donation or have more questions about the process they will be introduced to a coordinator who will facilitate the process as required.
- The organs and or tissues are donated.
Throughout this process a coordinator continues to liaise with the family to provide support as required.
What is the Australian Organ Donor Register?
The Australian Organ Donor Register is the official national register for organ and tissue donation. It is a record of a person’s wish to be a donor and the organs and tissues they agree to donate.
Only authorised medical staff have access to the donor register, so your privacy is secure.
What if I’m already registered as a donor elsewhere?
Even if you have previously expressed an intention to donate organs or tissue (such as by ticking a box on your driver’s license renewal), it’s important that you check that your consent and details are registered on the Australian Organ Donor Register.
When can deceased organ donation occur?
Organ donation requires special conditions and is possible in less than one per cent of all hospital deaths. People are around ten times more likely to need an organ transplant than to become an actual organ donor. The most common type of deceased organ donation is ‘donation after brain death’.
Brain death occurs when the brain swells, causing a loss of blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and the brain stem stops working. A series of special tests is done to confirm that the brain is no longer working and the person has died. Two doctors, who are not involved in transplantation, complete these tests separately to confirm brain death. Brain death can only be diagnosed in a hospital.
Brain death is different to a coma. A person in a coma is unconscious but their brain is working and they may recover. People cannot ever recover from brain death.
When can tissue donation occur?
Tissue donation can occur in a wide range of conditions and death does not have to take place in a hospital. Tissue can be donated up to 24 hours after death. Almost anyone can donate tissue, regardless of age and cause of death.
What is a living donation organ?
It is possible to donate an organ while alive, although in Australia this is restricted to kidney and liver donation. Living donors must be over the age of 18 years. They can be genetically related (blood relatives), such as brothers, sisters and parents, or emotionally related, such as husbands, wives, in-law relatives or close friends.
Non-directed living donation is a new form of living donation. It means someone donates a kidney and allows it to be given to the most suitable recipient on the transplant waiting list.
Another form of living donation is referred to as a ‘paired exchange’. This is when there are two potential kidney donor/recipient pairs whose blood types are incompatible. The two recipients trade donors so that each recipient can receive a kidney with a compatible blood type. People willing to join the Australian Paired Kidney Exchange Programme (AKX) should discuss this with their kidney specialist or contact the AKX Programme for more information.
Can I choose who will get my organs or tissues?
People who donate their organs or tissues after death cannot choose the transplant recipient. Laws protect the confidentiality of the deceased donor, the donor family and the transplant recipient.
Living donations are usually made by those wanting to save the life of someone they know. Living donors who provide a non-directed living donation cannot choose the transplant recipient.
Who decides who will receive a donated organ or tissue?
Australia has strict ethical guidelines for the allocation of organs. It depends on a process that takes into account urgency and organ match. Other considerations include the length of time on the official transplant waiting list.
There are national guidelines for deciding who will receive a donated organ or tissue in Australia. These guidelines are available at www.tsanz.com.au/organallocationprotocols.
Will my body be disfigured if I become a deceased donor?
Removal of organs after death is performed by highly skilled surgeons. The donor’s body is treated with respect and dignity at all times. The donation of organs does not alter the physical shape and appearance of the person.
How long has Australia been doing organ and tissue transplantation?
The first successful kidney transplant in Australia was performed in 1965, and since then more than 30,000 people have received transplants. Australia currently has one of the highest success rates for organ transplantation in the world, with survival rates in the first year exceeding 90 per cent.
If I register as a deceased donor, will my body be used for research?
Organ donation is completely separate from donating your body for research. Your decision to be an organ donor does not permit the removal of organs for any other reason.
Will being an organ donor delay my funeral arrangements?
Being an organ or tissue donor does not delay funeral arrangements or prevent an open-casket funeral.
Will my religion support organ and tissue donation?
Most religions support, or do not oppose, organ donation and many leave it to the individual to make the choice. If you’re unsure of your religion’s position, discuss it with your spiritual adviser.
Are there any costs involved in being a deceased donor?
No, the family does not pay for any organ donation procedures. This is the same for public and private hospitals.
Can people buy a donor organ in Australia?
Trade in human organs and tissue is illegal in Australia. Anyone involved would face criminal charges.