February 14th is Valentine's Day, a celebration of romance when lovers pledge their hearts to one another. And for some lucky recipients, total strangers have literally pledged their hearts (and other organs) to those in need.
That's because February 14th is also National Donor Day, a day selected by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to raise awareness about the importance of organ and tissue donation, and to encourage people to register to become an organ donor.
The need for viable organs for transplant is tremendous. Right now there are over 110,000 people who need an organ transplant of some kind, and an average of 20 people die daily from a disease that could have been treated if they received the organ transplant they needed. An average of 300 people a day are added to the ranks of those needing an organ for transplant.
Becoming an organ donor is one of the simplest things you can do. All it requires is signing up at your state's registry, which can usually be done online, or is an option when you go to acquire or renew your driver's license. That act alone may end up saving up to eight people's lives and affecting many more through tissue donation.
It's important to make sure that you discuss with your family and next of kin the fact that you would like to donate your organs should the opportunity arise. If it is merely stated in a will or on a driver's license, the opportunity to harvest the organs and help people may come and go before these documents are ever found. Make sure those who would make decisions for you at the end of your life know that you prefer to donate your organs.
In addition to becoming an organ donor, many more people could be helped as well by registering with the National Marrow Donor Program, a registry that helps match people who need bone marrow transplants with willing donors. The act is as simple as swabbing the inside of your cheek with a cotton swab, and mailing it in.
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) makes sure to mention that people of diverse ethnic backgrounds are particularly needed. Finding a match for an organ transplant is dependent on genetics, so it follows that increasing the genetic variability in the organ donation pool will increase the likelihood of diverse groups of people finding matches. Also, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian/Pacific Islanders are at three times greater risk to have a kidney disease that will ultimately require transplant, as well as having a high need for other organ transplants as well.
Don't forget that if you're feeling particularly altruistic, you can be a living donor as well. About 6,000 people per year donate either a kidney or part of their liver or pancreas to those in need, and only 25% of those donors are related to the recipient.
Unfortunately, the reason many people may be hesitant to become an organ donor (besides the unpleasant reality of having a major surgery) is that they may believe any number of myths that make them frightened about organ donation. Here are some myths that can be busted and put your mind at ease.
If the hospital knows someone is an organ donor, they don't do everything they can to save the patient's life. Not true. Each patient gets the full attention of a medical team and is concerned with saving the life of the patient in front of them, not the life of someone on an organ transplant list. Only after everything possible has been done to save a life is organ transplantation even considered. (If you donate a lobe of your liver, it grows back to normal size within a few months! Like a gigantic earthworm living right in your belly!)
Organ donors might have their organs harvested before they are actually dead. Not true. In fact, the process to confirm the death of an organ donor is quite exhaustive, with multiple tests over a period of time needed to show brain death has occurred and that it is irreversible.
Elderly people can't be organ donors. There is no age limit to be an organ donor. If organs are available for donation, the qualified transplant physicians will make a determination as to which organs can be used to help someone in need.
Organ donors can't have an open casket funeral. Unless you plan on being a little au naturale in your casket, this is not the case. All organs for donation are surgically removed from the donor in an operating room setting, with incisions on the torso, and with no incisions made that would prevent a traditional open casket viewing.
Donated organs only go to the rich or famous people in need of a transplant, not the people who need it most. Totally false. There is a government backed organization called the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) that makes the determination of who gets available organs, and they don't take bribes. Charles Alexander, the president of UNOS states that the system is as fair and efficient as possible, and organ recipients are determined by a number of factors, including how ill the recipient is, how closely the organ matches a recipient, and how likely the organ will be to help them.
“Please consider giving the best gift anyone could ever receive, the Gift of Life. If you or a family member were in need of a life-saving transplant, wouldn’t you want a life-saving organ to be available?" pointed out Michelle Segovia of the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance.
The process is easy, and you can do a great thing to help many, many people. It's so simple and so beautiful to be able to do one last, great, and meaningful act of kindness and generosity as your last act in life.