A surgeon wearing a facemask in preparation for surgery.

Every nine minutes, someone in the United States joins the national organ transplant waiting list. Every day, 17 people on that list die waiting for an organ because there are not enough donors. But one donor can save up to eight lives.

If you are not a registered organ donor or have not considered becoming one, here is some information on the process.

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Types of Organ Donation

There are two types of organ donation.

Deceased organ donation

Deceased organ donation occurs when a person who registered to be an organ donor dies.

Doctors transplant their organs, like the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, and other tissues, into a patient or patients on the organ transplant waiting list.

Living organ donation

This occurs when a healthy adult donates a kidney or part of their liver to a patient on the waiting list.

For patients in need of a liver or a kidney transplant, a living donor transplant is a first-line treatment option, not a last resort. Living-donor donation allows the patient to receive a transplant sooner.

During a living-donor liver transplant, a surgeon removes part of a healthy adult’s liver and transplants it into a patient with end-stage liver disease. The liver has the ability to regenerate, or regrow, in a few months. This leaves both the living donor and the recipient with a functioning liver.

During a living-donor kidney transplant, a surgeon removes one kidney from a healthy adult and transplants it into a patient with end-stage kidney disease. This procedure is possible because you can live a healthy life with one functioning kidney.

The Importance of Organ Donation Awareness and Education

For patients on the waiting list, education and awareness are key.

“Transplant is lifesaving and life-changing for so many people,” says Brenda Stinner, BSN, coordinator, Heart and Lung Transplant Program, Hillman Center for Pediatric Transplantation, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “It’s important for patients and families to know that transplant could be an option and what it means to become an organ donor.”

For potential living donors, it’s important to research and make sure you are healthy to donate a kidney or part of your liver.

“Becoming a living donor is a very personal choice,” says Lindsay Arnold, a living kidney donor. “Think everything through and make sure to do your research about living donation before making the decision. Since the transplant, I never once regretted my decision. It was an experience that bettered my life knowing that I saved someone else’s. And that’s something to be proud of forever.”

Organ donation can change — and save — lives.

“When I woke up, I couldn’t believe I was breathing without oxygen support for the first time in four years,” says Tammy Cook, a lung transplant recipient. “It was amazing. I couldn’t believe someone else’s lungs were in my body doing the work.”

How Elected Officials Can Support Organ Donation

There are many efforts to encourage organ donor registration and living organ donation. But policy matters when it comes to increasing access to transplantation for patients on the transplant waiting list.

Federal and state elected officials play an important role in considering and passing legislation that supports organ donation.

Pennsylvania State Reps.* Ryan Bizarro and Lynda Culver explained why they are such strong supporters of organ donation in a recent Q&A.

Q: What improvements would you like to see made with organ donation over the next few years?

Rep. Bizarro: I would like to see a dramatic expansion of opportunities to register as an organ donor. We can no longer rely on in-person transactions at PennDOT to drive registration efforts. The world is changing, and we must change with it. That’s why I’ve authored legislation to allow Pennsylvanians to register as organ donors when they register to vote. I also lead the effort to include registration when applying for hunting and fishing licenses and on all state websites. Next, I’m looking into creating registration opportunities when applying for a professional license.

Rep. Culver: We need to focus more resources and investments into the modernization of transplant, medications, and treatments. As a kidney transplant patient, I would particularly like to see the artificial kidney complete clinical trials and be available as an alternative in the next few years. It will improve and save even more lives and give more options to many individuals with less suffering. I think that both the federal and state governments need to focus on policies to encourage and make organ donation less financially burdensome, address insurance concerns, and encourage employers to support organ donation.

Q: How does policy play a role when it comes to organ donation?

Rep. Bizzaro: Both state and federal laws and regulations play an important role because they provide a safe and fair system for allocation, distribution, and transplantation of donated organs. Policy also can help raise awareness about organ donation for the public. Organ donation is the greatest possible gift but for many people comes with a lot of questions that often aren’t thought of until the last minute. Policy creates opportunities for education and outreach to help people think of and get answers to their questions before it becomes an urgent decision. The House Democratic Policy Committee, which I chair, has already taken members for a tour of the Center for Organ Recovery and Education to help them get the word out to their constituents and save lives.

Rep. Culver: As a lawmaker and a kidney transplant recipient, I know firsthand that there are policy options to promote organ donation, and many states, including Pennsylvania, could be doing more to support and encourage donors and their recipients. Some policy changes that I will be exploring that would be helpful in the transplant process would be to allow a donor to receive unemployment for four to six weeks for recovery, to ease the financial burden; allow companies to seek tax credits for an employee who is a donor; and looking at tax credits for donors to account for expenses and lost wages. These changes may lead to an increase in living donation and lessen spending of public dollars on dialysis.

UPMC Transplant Services

Established in 1981, UPMC Transplant Services is one of the oldest and largest organ transplant centers in the world. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, including liver, kidney, pancreas, single- and double-lung, heart, and more.

We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts. We have a long history of developing new anti-rejection therapies. This allows organ transplant recipients to enjoy better health with fewer restrictions.

To register to become an organ donor, visit our website. For more information on UPMC’s living donor transplant services, visit our living donation website.

*This material is presented for informational purposes only and does not constitute the endorsement by UPMC of any public official, program, or political party, nor the endorsement of UPMC by any public official or political party.

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