Apr 23, 2015 — If you’re hesitant to check the organ donor box on your driver’s license because you’re unsure of the process, we’re here to clear it up. Dr. Jill Sweney talks about what it means to be an organ donor and what actually happens to your body after you die. She answers questions such as where your organs go and whether you can have an open-casket funeral. If you have any questions related to organ donation, give this podcast a listen!

Interview

Interviewer: If you're this close to wanting to be an organ donor but maybe there's a myth or a misconception that you just need to clear up before you can finally check that box that, "Yes, you want to donate" then this is the podcast for you. I'm going to clear up common misconceptions and myths about organ donation next on The Scope.

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Interviewer: The month of April is Donate Life Month and if you are hesitant to check that box that says, "Yes, I will be an organ donor" because you have a misconception or maybe you've heard something. We're going to try to dispel some of those right now. Jill Sweney is a doctor, she's a pediatric intensive care physician, and let's talk about some of the common myths and misconceptions about organ donation. I think the first one is someone else is going to do it.

Dr. Sweney: Right. And I think that that's something that most of us have in our minds is that other people have checked the box on their driver's license as well. And that's just not the case. I think so many of us are renewing our driver's license and don't even think about what that check box means. And we also don't talk to our families about what we would want if something were to happen to us.

Interviewer: And I think in my case too, I think every time I get there I see that check box and I think, "Oh boy, this is a decision I probably should put more thought into than I have. So I'm not going to check it this time, but four years from now I will."

Dr. Sweney: Exactly.

Interviewer: I wonder if that happens.

Dr. Sweney: I'm sure it does. We're all in a hurry at the DMV. The other thing is I think there's a lot of misconception as to the quality of care you would get having that box checked. Organ donation is something that really does not even come to the minds of physicians until we're all ready having difficult conversations about the end of life.

Interviewer: I think that's another common maybe myth or misconception is that the fear that the doctor might hasten my death to get to my organs, but that cannot happen.

Dr. Sweney: No, and actually when the first conversations happen about organ donation, we invite a separate entity to have those conversations. All hospitals in the United States have a designated organ procurement or organ donation organization in their area, and we invite those coordinators to come have those conversations.

Interviewer: And at what point are they invited to have those conversations, when the patient is pretty sure that they're not going to live or...?

Dr. Sweney: Yes. And actually in the case of donors after brain death, it is after the determination of brain death has been made.

Interviewer: And then brain death is death.

Dr. Sweney: Yes.

Interviewer: As commonly people know as death. What about this misconception that I'm not going to be able to have an open casket funeral if I donate all of my organs?

Dr. Sweney: Yeah, that's actually very common, but these incisions are very small and would not be seen in a dressed individual.

Interviewer: What about the "ick" factor? It's kind of gross to think about that moment where somebody might take my organs out of me, or even worse that my moment where I might die before I'm ready to.

Dr. Sweney: I think that the "ick" factor could very easily be subsided with education as far as who are the recipients of these organs. There are children, there are moms, there are dads, and there are people that are going to be able to go outside and play where they weren't able to before. And in looking at it that way, there's just not a lot of "ick" associated with that.

Interviewer: Yeah. So when we talk about all these real people, these moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children that these organs can help, how many people can a single organ donor, how many lives can that person change?

Dr. Sweney: So it's actually up to about five to seven different recipients can benefit. It used to be just more the kidneys and the heart are what we thought about. But now we can actually transplant the pancreas and relieve someone of the burden of Type 1 diabetes. There are a growing number of diseases that are treated and even cured with a liver transplant, especially in children. Relieving the burden of daily dialysis with a kidney transplant, and that's actually two recipients. Each of them get one of the kidneys.

Interviewer: And then what about tissues? What are some of the tissues that are used in that instance?

Dr. Sweney: So if the heart itself cannot be transplanted, the heart valves can be used. And those are very commonly replaced in both adults and children. Some of the skin can be used in burn patients. I think people are very unaware of the number of joint surgeries that are done where bone is actually used from a donor. And then corneas can be transplanted, and that's quite remarkable because many of the recipients are unable to see and then are free of glasses.

And honestly even donors whose organs are maybe not functioning to the degree that you'd want to put them in another individual, there's a lot of these organs that are used for very important research -- liver cells, kidneys, skin. Research is happening with those all over.

Interviewer: Obviously it's the decision that can change somebody's life, but it's also a kind of decision that a lot of us kind of have to come to, I think, with the right information and weighing the pros against the cons. Is there some place else that somebody, that maybe we've gotten a step closer to donating could go to do a little bit more research.

Dr. Sweney: The UNOS, the United Network of Organ Sharing website is a good resource as well as our local Intermountain Donor Services website.

Interviewer: What would be one takeaway that you would want somebody to have taken out of this conversation? If you could only get one message across, this is it.

Dr. Sweney: I think to make this decision before you're forced to. Ask loved ones what their preference would be and really take the burden off of yourself in that time by having that conversation beforehand.

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