Please talk to your family about organ donation

I am, as we have established, a huge fan of organ and tissue donation. You can save lives or radically improve quality of life by donating material you really aren’t using, in the case of cadaver donation, or can spare, in the case of living donations. UNOS estimates that a single donation can save eight lives in the US, while 22 people die every day because they can’t get organs. That’s a lot of people that could be helped with material that’s being burned up or tossed in the ground! Sheesh!

So here’s the thing: If you are interested in donating your organs, or are honestly fine with whatever, you don’t even care, you need to talk to your loved ones about it. It’s not always a super fun conversation to have, but you should get it out there on the record.

Yes, by all means, sign the forms to opt in for organ donation, depending on where you live. You may be a resident of an opt-out state or country, in which case theoretically you are considered a possible donor unless you explicitly state otherwise. It’s good to fill that paperwork out though and to think about what kinds of donation you’re interested in. Organs aren’t the only thing they can harvest — your skin and bones can also be incredibly useful, for example. If you’re worried about what you might look like at a funeral, teams can work around that, too — donating organs doesn’t mean you can’t have an open casket, or can’t be cared for by loved ones.

If you have an advanced directive (if you don’t, why not?) make sure that your wishes with regards to organ donation are spelled out. Indicate whether you want to be considered, and the organs and tissues you’re okay with donating. (Remember: You’re dead, and you can’t take it with you.) Some advance directive forms have nifty checkboxes to help with this, and in other cases you may need to write it out. Be specific. Make sure this information is kept up to date in your chart.

But then? You also need to talk to family members, because hospitals look for consent from family. If you’ve always wanted to donate but haven’t had the conversation, go have it. Make sure that people understand that this is what you want (or are okay with), and be clear that it’s on your advance directive and other paperwork as well. Because family members dealing with trauma and grief who don’t know what you would have wanted may well say ‘no’ when asked.

And they will be asked. The organ bank people are pretty persistent. A nurse or transplant coordinator or another hospital staffer may ask, and they may ask again, too, just to be sure. If you’re a candidate for beating heart donation, they may be especially interested. They will circle like vultures around your room. Some people find this invasive and offensive and kind of gross, actually, but the point is, they will be there.

So make your wishes known. It doesn’t have to be a deep, serious, intense conversation. Just say that you want to make it clear for the record that you’d like your family to consider donation if the issue comes up. You might talk briefly about why it’s important to you, especially if your family doesn’t have a history of donation, or if you come from a cultural background where it’s frowned upon. (Notably, a growing number of faiths have endorsed donation, with statements from a variety of respected religious leaders.)

Remember that death may be sudden, or it may drag on for weeks or even months. It may come so quickly that people don’t have very much time to prepare — I could be hit by a train tomorrow, or I could live another 60 years. I don’t know! What I do know is that it’s important to me that the people entrusted with end of life decisions for me understand my stance on what I want to happen with my body. And it should be important to you, too, if you care about what happens to your body. If you don’t really care, you should make that clear too, so people understand that whatever choice they make is fine.

I know it’s a little scary and intimidating to talk about death and acknowledge that it’s a thing that happens, but it’s part of the cycle we all inhabit. Not planning for it can make it much more traumatic, and while it might make people uneasy now, they’ll feel a lot better when they get the question and can confidently say ‘yes please’ rather than having to dither in frozen panic as they realise that they don’t actually know what you might have wanted.

We don’t have an organ shortage because of malice. We have one because people don’t know, or fail to communicate, their wishes, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Take a few minutes to sort that out and consider it your good deed for the day – even if it’s a deed that may not actually take place for a very long time.

Image: Organ donation, Magnus D, Flickr