Should I Become an Organ Donor?

6 min read  |  January 31, 2023  | 
Disponible en Español |

Most of us would not want to linger at work 18 hours past quitting time, but Saskia Izaguirre never regretted her decision. As an After Care Support Coordinator for the Life Alliance Organ Recovery Agency (LAORA), it’s all in a day’s work. Izaguirre spent those 18 hours in a hospital waiting to speak to a family about organ donation. “That is what the family needed, and I respected that. At the darkest time of their lives, families turn a tragedy into a miracle. As human beings, we can give the gift of life,” Izaguirre says.  

It’s a gift we all share, according to George Yacoubian, an organ procurement organization brand specialist at LAORA. “Anyone can be a potential organ donor, at any age or with any preexisting condition.”

When you get or renew your driver’s license, you are asked a critical question that has nothing to do with your ability to drive a car safely. The choice to register as an organ donor is an emotional and generous one.

Standing in line at the DMV isn’t the right time and place to decide to become an organ donor.

“Every donation process is a miracle and an ever-lasting legacy,” says Sam A. Salama, M.D., executive director of the LAORA.

LAORA is a federally accredited organ procurement organization that serves patients and families at the University of Miami Health System as well as all hospitals throughout South Florida. “We also provide community education and engagement regarding organ donation and other services,” Dr. Salama says. 

The South Florida LAORA region covers seven areas – from St. Lucie County south to the Bahamas.

Those who decide to become organ donors have the potential to save lives and help others regain bodily functions. 

“An organ donor may be able to save lives or enhance lives through tissue and cornea donation,” says Dr. Salama. 

This is true for donors of any age, including those with some medical conditions. Yacoubian cites several examples. “An HIV-positive person can donate to another HIV-positive person. And in 2022, a 95-year-old in Virginia became the oldest man in America to become an organ donor. Also, studies show that organs don’t carry COVID. So now, a patient with COVID could potentially become an organ donor.”

The pandemic impacted the full spectrum of health care services; organ donation was no exception. “Donations decreased during the pandemic,” says Izaguirre.

Living organ donation is another option for those interested in helping meet the tremendous national need for a kidney, liver, and other full and partial organ transplants. This process takes place at transplant centers without the involvement of organ procurement organizations.

Many families have concerns about what happens to a donor’s body through the process of organ donation.

Dr. Salama reassures donors and families that “organ, tissue, and cornea donation are surgical procedures that are done with the utmost respect. We at LAORA consider the process itself sacred. Open casket viewing, religious ceremonies, and burial/cremation are routinely done after organ donation.”

“It is humbling to see many family members of donor heroes volunteer as advocates for organ donation and keep the legacy of their loved ones alive.”

Overcoming obstacles to donation

LAORA also works to dispel misconceptions that deter people from participating in this life-saving program. Some fear that doing so will limit the emergency medical care they would receive if they had a near-fatal accident or condition. They may think that EMTs or other medical professionals would prioritize their viable organs over administering life-saving treatments.

“This is an unfortunate misconception and completely untrue,” Dr. Salama says.

When hospitals treat patients with devastating injuries, they often consult organ procurement organizations.

“If/when the time comes for the hospital team to engage the patient’s family in an end-of-life discussion, LAORA or another organ procurement organization discusses with the family if organ donation would fit the legacy of their loved one,” Dr. Salama says.

The procurement process follows an extensive set of protocols.

“To be honest and transparent with families and to manage their expectations, we evaluate a series of medical criteria before speaking to them,” Izaguirre says. If the family agrees, the decision on whether an organ is viable enough to transplant ultimately takes place in the operating room.

When someone is on life-support or dies unexpectedly, loved ones may be left with a difficult decision. In this situation, many families decline to authorize organ donation. Making your end-of-life wishes clear and official when you’re well can relieve your family of that added stress and guarantee that your desire to donate is honored.

“When you register to be an organ donor and become someone’s miracle, please also make your wishes known to your loved ones,” Dr. Salama says. Your status will appear on your driver’s license.

Suppose you didn’t register as an organ donor when you got your driver’s license. In that case, you can still sign up with your local tax collection organization or, if you’re a Florida resident, at Donate Life Florida.

In a community as diverse as South Florida, the decision to give the gift of life may be complicated by cultural inferences. 

As Saskia Izaguirre says, “George (Yacoubian) and I are both from Venezuela. We don’t come from a culture where people talk about death or organ donation. This is a first-time topic for many families.” 

LAORA staff reach people through their churches and other community organizations to overcome these barriers. “We’re ambassadors every moment of every day,” Izaguirre says. 

In their line of work, every day is critical. “On average, 17 people die each day waiting for an organ,” Yacoubian says.

The challenges are great, but so are the rewards. If desired, LAORA advocates will facilitate connections between donor and recipient families. “When people lose someone, then meet the recipient, they come together like a family. That is so magical,” Yacoubian says. 

Original article written by Dana Kantrowitz. Updated in 2023 by Nancy Moreland.

Originally published on: January 20, 2022

Tags: advanced directive, donate organ, end of life decisions, LAORA, organ donation, protect healthy tissue

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