Tissue Donation Process
Tissue donation is a common lifesaving option for people who wish to be donors, as there are very few medical reasons (other than having a communicable disease, such as HIV or hepatitis) a person would not be eligible to donate tissue.
Corneas or whole eyes, bone, skin, tendons, ligaments, heart valves and other cardiovascular tissues can be transplanted. Great care is taken in the recovery of tissues to ensure presentation of the body for funeral purposes. Generally, donation will not delay funeral arrangements, and tissue donation does not interfere with an open-casket funeral for the donor.
Here’s how the process works:
- Death Occurs – When a patient dies, the hospital staff notifies family members. Federal regulations mandate that the hospital notify an organ procurement organization, such as LifeGift, of all deaths occurring there. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the LifeGift Donor Resource Center receives and coordinates organ and tissue referrals in LifeGift's service areas, which cover nearly 200 hospitals.
- Assess Donation Possibility – The deceased patient is assessed for suitability for tissue donation, based on criteria such as age, cause of death and medical history.
- First-person Authorization – LifeGift will check the Donate Life Texas Registry to determine if the person is a registered donor. If he/she is a registered donor, LifeGift will inform the family that their loved one decided while he or she was living to give the gift of life to someone who truly needs it. LifeGift maintains a legal obligation to observe all end-of-life decisions, including donor designation. The state of Texas recognizes this as a legally binding decision. LifeGift and all hospitals are legally obligated to honor advance directives, including organ, eye and tissue recovery decisions by the patient.
- Approach Family about Donation – If the patient is a suitable donor, LifeGift contacts the family and presents the option to donate. If family members are interested in donation, they must agree to an authorization form that itemizes each tissue they want to donate.
- Gather Information – The family must also answer a medical/social questionnaire (similar to those asked when a person donates blood). These questions are asked for the protection of the recipients and to screen for communicable diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis. The medical history then is examined to ensure the tissue is suitable for transplantation.
- Recover and Transplant Tissue – If the tissues are suitable, a team recovers them in an aseptic surgical procedure. The body is then reconstructed. The recovered tissues are then used to create numerous grafts for transplant. If the tissues cannot be used for transplant, certain tissues may still be donated for research.
LifeGift partners with several organizations dedicated to preparing donated tissue for transplantation:
“Stories are so powerful,” said tissue recipient Katy Portell, recounting a time she shared her story with classmates in college. In one of her communications classes, she began a persuasive speech to promote organ and tissue donation, telling her own story from a third-person perspective. At the end, she revealed that she was in fact, the young girl in the story who would have died without a lifesaving transplant. Katy vividly remembers tears building up in her classmates’ eyes as they grasped the reality that was her story.
Katy received lifesaving tissue through the gift of heart valves. “Tissue is sometimes perceived to enhance lives and not save them. I’ve always seen organ and tissue donation on the same level of importance,” said Katy.
Katy was born with several heart defects, which doctors determined fatal. Baby pictures are heartbreaking to see. Wires and tubes draped a fragile and sick baby, clinging to life. Katy underwent her first minor surgery in 1990, when she was only 10 days old, and she received her lifesaving heart valves at the age of 4.
Because of her tissue transplant, Katy is able to live a full life. She is also thankful for the story she can share to inspire others and the life her tissue donor gave her.
“Some may struggle with a concept of tissue donation,” said Katy. “When they hear a story like mine, my hope is that they will have a better understanding that might change their perspective.”
Katy’s passion for sharing donation with others led her to the role as volunteer coordinator for our sister organization, Southwest Transplant Alliance, based in Dallas.