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The Basic Path of Organ Donation

Published on: Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The donation process begins with a decision. You decide you want to help people with end-stage disease by donating your organs when you die. Your body, after all, is finished with them.

When your time comes, perhaps decades later, your organs may be used to save many lives. People most frequently become donors after a stroke, heart attack or severe head injury.

Even through cases vary, the following describes the basic steps in donation after an accident.


A specialized team of EMTs and paramedics begin life-saving efforts at the scene. They also contact emergency room doctors during transport.


When the team arrives, ER doctors and nurses have advanced life-support equipment ready. They evaluate injuries and continue life-saving measures, including a ventilator, IV fluid, blood replacement and drugs to help the heart keep beating.

Intensive Care

After vital signs stabilize, the patient is transferred to the ICU, where a doctor performs special tests to see how much damage has been done to the brain and organs. The medical team continues advanced life-support during the tests.

Brain Death Declared

Brain death is diagnosed as an irreversible loss of blood flow to the brain, causing the brain to die. After brain death, the donor’s body is kept functioning by artificial means, such as a ventilator support.


For registered donors, a specially-trained nurse from the organ procurement organization (OPO) goes to the hospital to see if the patient is medically suitable to be a donor.


The doctor talks to the family about the patient’s death. Then, someone from the OPO, or specially-trained hospital staff, talks to the family about donation. The family takes time to think and ask questions before they decide. The decision is easier if the patient is listed on the state donor registry, and if the family had previously discussed donation. Visit to register as an organ donor.


The donor’s blood type, height, weight, the hospital zip code and other data are entered into UNOS’ national computer system to begin the organ allocation process. Appropriate candidates are found for whom the donor’s organs are the best match. Timing is especially important at this step and during recovery.

Organ Recovery

The donor is taken to an operating room, where organs are surgically removed by a transplant surgeon. After that, the organs are sent to the transplant hospitals where candidates are waiting for them.


After donation, the donor is taken to a funeral home, and the OPO works with the funeral director to avoid delays in the funeral. Because organ donation is rarely disfiguring, the family can have an open casket.


A few weeks later, the OPO sends a letter to the donor’s family, telling them which organs were transplanted, but keeping the names of the recipients confidential. Most OPOs continue to provide support to donor families, such as bereavement counseling and later, memorial events.

Mid-America Transplant Services’ “How Donation Works” provided the explanation upon which this content is based.