Donating your child's organs when the unthinkable happens is not normally something parents ever think of. If you've been following my recordings, you know that a dear friend lost her teenage daughter recently. We had been very close to her daughter since she was a baby. And it was amazing that even in this difficult time, my friend thought of others. Her daughter was an organ donor. She improved the lives of at least six other children by this selfless act.
Before I was a pediatrician, I worked in organ transplant as one of the original 12 organ placement specialists for UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing. My job was to take information on those who had been declared brain dead, enter it into the computer, and find matches. That means finding those people waiting on the transplant list, who were genetically similar enough to the persons whose organs were being offered and coordinate with the transplant teams on both sides to get lifesaving organs from one person to another.
People can declare if they want to be organ donors on their driver's licenses or in their wills. But what happens when a child passes? Parents have to make that decision under the most difficult of circumstances. The process starts when a child is admitted to the intensive care unit and the doctors there suspect that the child will not recover from their injuries. They will discuss if the parents are interested in donating their child's organs if their child is declared brain dead.
Brain death happens when the brain essentially stops being able to do what it normally does — think, feel, and tell the body what to do. It cannot be reversed. While the heart can continue to beat and machines can keep a patient breathing, the brain is no longer working. A child may appear to be sleeping, but they're not. They're kept alive by machines and medicines. When the machines are turned off, the rest of the body will die, just as the brain already has.
Specific exams are done by specialists to confirm brain death. Someone is never declared brain dead without all of those tests being done to confirm that the brain is no longer functioning. Once brain death has been declared, someone from the local transplant team, called the organ procurement organization, will come and meet with the family. They are usually medical personnel with special training in how to handle this most sensitive situation. They will be able to answer questions and help the family through the process.
Once parents give consent, the paperwork begins, and that is where what I did comes in. When donors and recipients are matched, organ placement specialists will help with transportation to get the organs to where they need to go. Once everything is coordinated, the donor is taken to the operating room where the organs that were placed are then removed from the body and the machines are turned off, and thus, the patient has now become cardiac dead. Their heart stopped beating and they are gone.
The donor patient can have a full open casket funeral if desired. The organ procurement team works closely with funeral homes to make sure this can happen. For privacy, the recipients of the patient's organs are not disclosed to the donor family. But the organ procurement team does let the family know how many organs were able to be transplanted into waiting recipients.
While nothing can make the pain of losing a child suddenly better, families often say that knowing that, during the tragedy of their loss, they were able to give the precious gift of life to another and that helps the healing process begin. Their child will live on through those they have helped.
Knowing their friend was an organ donor started the conversation with my boys. They both told me that they would like to be donors if anything happened to them. They know their father and I are both registered donors as well. If you would like to be an organ donor, you can sign up at UNOS, UNOS.org/register-to-be-an-organ-donor. I would like to dedicate this podcast to all who have made the choice to donate and save another life. Thank you.
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