Last month was National Blood Donor Month, instituted to highlight the importance of donating blood to save the lives of family, friends and neighbors. On February 14th, we celebrate National Organ Donor Day to highlight the desperate need for organ, eye, marrow and tissue donors. As you read this, there are more than 100,000 people waiting for the organ donation that will save their life. A new patient is added to the transplant list every 10 minutes, and every day, 22 people die waiting in vain for the tissue, marrow or organ that could have saved them. Why does being an organ donor matter to family caregivers, homecare companions and seniors? As of May 2015, more than 25,000 people on the national waiting list were over 65, and new names are added to this list every day. Despite the common – but false – belief that those over 65 can’t donate their organs, or receive transplants, seniors play a large part in the life-giving and life-receiving donor process.

There are four major types of donations that National Donor Day advocates and celebrates: organs, tissues, bone marrow, and blood and blood products. Some organs can come from living donors, and others are donated after death, assuming they are in good condition. If you are already a registered organ donor, read on to learn more about the wonderful gift you are giving. If you’re on the fence about registering, here’s your chance to learn more about the difference you could make long after you’re gone.

  • Organs: organs eligible for transplant are the kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, intestine, pancreas, and thymus.

    • The most commonly transplanted organ is the kidney, followed by the liver and the heart, respectively. Since the human body has two kidneys and can survive with one, kidneys are often donated by living donors, making a match more likely to be found among a patient’s extended family.
    • While the liver is typically transplanted whole, part of a liver can be transplanted into a patient’s body where it will regenerate itself. This means that a living donor can donate half their liver to a transplant patient, and both can survive with regenerated livers.
    • Hearts, lungs and the other organs come from deceased donors, for up to 24 hours after the last heartbeat.
  • Tissues: transplantable tissues include:

    • corneas, skin, heart valves, nerves, veins, bones and tendons. These tissues, with the exception of corneas, can be banked for up to 5 years.
    • Bones, tendons and corneas are the most commonly transplanted tissues. Altogether, transplants of these tissues outnumber organ transplants by a factor of ten.
  • Marrow: While organs and tissues are serotyped (match by blood type) to prevent transplant rejection, bone marrow and cord blood is more difficult to match because the body’s immune system will reject a poor match more aggressively.

    • The donor and the recipient must share HLA proteins, which are typically shared by people of a common ancestry. The immune system uses HLA markers to know which cells belong in the body and which don’t, so if the HLA markers don’t match, the donation won’t take.
    • Age and health of the donor do plays a role with marrow donation, with donors between 18 and 44 providing the most successful donations.
    • Currently, a bone marrow or cord blood transplant might be the only option for those suffering from many types of leukemia and lymphoma, sickle cell anemia, inherited immune system disorders, blood disorders, and other kinds of cancer.
  • Blood and blood products: Last month we talked in depth about donating blood, platelets, plasma, and red blood cells in our blog post Caregivers 101: National Blood Donor Month.

Most of us approve of organ donation in the abstract, but we get nervous thinking about what might happen to us after – or even before? – we die. Bestsellers like Robin Cook’s Coma, and that weird urban myth about the guy who wakes up in the bathtub full of ice without his kidney are what keep the organ donor registration lists so short. The irony is that if we all felt comfortable with the posthumous donation, we wouldn’t have to worry about urban myths. If you’re interested, you can now register as a donor at the DMV, or at a registration drive near you.