There's An Organ Donor Shortage. Here's How You Can Help

About 100,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant right now.

Not too long ago, people in need of an organ transplant often died before they made the transplant list.

Now, the wait list has been growing as modern medicines allow people to live longer to get to the point where they can receive a transplant. About 100,000 people are waiting for an organ right now, according to the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations.

If you want to help while living or when you no longer need your Earthly form, here’s what you need to know.

How do I register to be a living organ donor?

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), you should contact a registered transplant hospital and connect with their transplant program.

If you want to be a living organ donor to someone you know (also called a directed donation), you should try the transplant program where they are listed. You can also reach out to a transplant center about a non-directed donation, which will go to someone you don’t know.

How do I find an organ transplant center?

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services keeps a directory of organ transplant centers on its website.

Head to that link and click “transplant centers” on the dropdown, click "active," and then select your state or region. A list of centers will appear, along with phone numbers and which organs they are able to accept for donations.

Which organs can I donate while living, and what do recipients need?

The living can donate a kidney, even a lung, or a portion of the liver. You will have to complete some tests to determine who is a match for your donation. The transplant center will tell you more about the tests.

Kidneys are the most commonly needed organ.

More of the body can be passed on to the living after you die. If you’ve opted in to being an organ donor after death, people in need could receive a life-saving gift of a heart, your lungs, pancreas, or intestines. Others may benefit from a specialized bone graft or tendon transplant from you, says Jan Finn president of the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations.

Though we might not want to dwell on it while we’re still breathing, checking off the organ donor box when getting your driver’s license could save someone else’s life.  

If I’m an organ donor, will that affect my care?

When she was working as a critical care nurse, Finn had heard this one before.

“Sometimes it's easier to think that and not sign up...people don't like to think about their own death. So it gives them the opportunity to say, ‘I'm not going to sign it, because it means I'm not going to die and I'm not going to have to think about it.’”

“Our goal is to save their lives, and so we’re doing everything we can to save them. And that doesn’t change simply because someone has signed up to be a donor,” Finn said.

Not only does donor status not affect health care decisions, sometimes health care providers might not even know your donor status while taking care of you. In an emergency situation (say, you come into the hospital after a car crash), your ID is probably not even available to health care worker— it’s likely that police or EMTs would be holding onto your belongings, Finn said.

“We went into health care to take care of people and to help them,” Finn said. “And so the life in front of us is the one that’s most important. And I can tell you that from personal experience.”

Are there any good stories of organ transplant recipients?

You betcha. Finn is not the main character in this story, but she heard all about it.

A woman walked into an Oklahoma barbecue restaurant a few years ago. She was all picking up a meal for her husband, who was having a BBQ craving after four months in the hospital.

She told all this to the owner of the barbecue shop, who asked the woman what kept her husband in the hospital so long.

He had been waiting for a lung transplant, the woman said. 

The shop owner “said ‘Oh my goodness,’ and he pointed to a picture which was in his restaurant,” Finn said.

It was his son, who had died in a car crash. He had been an organ donor. 

The shop owner thought back to the card he had received after the donation - there were no names, but he knew generally that the recipient was a father in his 30s.

The shop owner knew immediately that his son’s lungs were helping this man breathe again.

He called Finn. 

“He said, 'But I just know it’s this gentleman, I just met his wife.' Finn suggested he show the customer the card to see if it was familiar to her. 

And it was.

From the tragedy of the car accident came the donation and a new kinship between two families.

“They became friends," Finn said. "They visited each other. They ended up doing things together. And that was just a real tale to me, that we are not in charge of who gets the organs, that the list is there for the right reasons and the right recipients always get them. And so that's a story that stuck with me. And I was privileged to see him over a number of years and to see how well he had done with his lung transplant.”