Although similar, organ donation and body donation serve two different purposes – one helps others directly through transplants, and the other indirectly through teaching and research. Becoming an organ donor is very straight forward, whereas donating your body to medical science involves a certain amount of pre-planning. If you have no desire to be buried or cremated, and quite fancy a cheap exit to this world with no fuss, then donating your body may be the option for you. Check out the links below for more information.
What is Organ Donation?
Every year in the UK, over 3000 lives are saved or significantly improved by donated organs and tissue from donors. These donors have consented to organ donation for example by joining the Organ Donor Register, or by discussing their wishes to donate with relatives and close friends who can then give permission when the time comes.
Organs that can be donated by people who have died include the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas and small bowel. Tissue such as skin, bone, heart valves and corneas can also be used to help others. Time is of the essence when it is the wish of the deceased or the nearest relative to donate the organs for transplant. The doctor attending will advise on procedure, and after organ donation, the body is released to the relatives for the funeral as normal.
There are a lot of issues and fears surrounding organ donation. To follow are the answers to some common questions.
Organ Donation Q & A’s
Will the doctors fight to save me?
Absolutely. The doctors looking after a patient have to make every possible effort to save the patient’s life. That’s their first duty. If, despite their efforts, the patient dies, organ and tissue donation can be considered. A completely different team of donation and transplant specialists will then be called in.
How will they know I’m dead?
Organs are only removed for transplantation after a person has died. Doctors who are entirely independent of the transplant team will confirm death. Death is confirmed in exactly the same way for people who donate organs as for those who don’t.
Most organ donors are patients who die because of a brain haemorrhage, severe head injury or stroke and who are on a ventilator in a hospital intensive care unit. In these circumstances, death is diagnosed by brain stem tests. There are very clear and strict standards and procedures for these tests, which are always performed by two experienced doctors.
The ventilator provides oxygen that keeps the heart beating and blood circulating after death. These donors are called heart-beating donors. Organs such as hearts, which deteriorate very quickly without an oxygen supply, are usually only donated by a heart-beating donor.
Patients who die in hospital but aren’t on a ventilator can, in some circumstances, donate their kidneys and other organs. They’re called non-heart-beating donors. Both heart-beating and non-heart-beating donors can donate their corneas and other tissue.
Will I be left disfigured?
Organs and tissue are always removed with the greatest of care and respect for the person. This takes place in a normal operating theatre under the usual conditions. Afterwards the surgical incision is carefully closed and covered by a dressing in the normal way. Tissue can be removed in an operating theatre, mortuary or funeral home. Specialist healthcare professionals carry out the operation. They ensure that the donor is treated with the utmost respect and dignity. Only those organs and tissue specified by the donor or their family will be removed.
Is it possible to see the body after donation?
Yes. Families are given the opportunity to spend time with their loved one after the operation if they wish. The transplant coordinator will arrange this. Arrangements for viewing the body after donation are the same as after any death.
Does a donor’s family have to pay the cost of donation?
No. There’s no question of any payment at all. The NHS meets the costs related to the donation of organs and tissue.
Does joining the NHS Organ Donor Register mean I am agreeing to donate my face or limbs for transplant?
No. We would require specific agreement for these forms of donation, either from you, during your lifetime, or from your next of kin after death. Let those close to you know your wishes.
Can I agree to donate to some people and not to others?
No. Organs and tissue cannot be accepted unless they’re freely donated. No conditions can be attached in terms of potential recipients. The only restriction allowed is which organs or tissue are to be donated.
Could my donated organs and tissue go to a private patient?
Possibly. However, patients entitled to treatment on the NHS are always given priority for donated organs. These include UK citizens, members of Her Majesty’s forces serving abroad and patients covered by a reciprocal health agreement with the UK.
Other people will only be offered an organ if there are no suitable patients entitled to treatment under the NHS. Every effort is made to ensure that a donated organ does not go to waste if there is someone who can benefit.
Donated tissue is made available to any hospital in the UK where there’s a patient in need.
Could any of my organs or tissue be given to someone in another country?
Yes, possibly. There’s an agreement that any organs that cannot be matched to UK patients are offered to people in other European countries. Likewise, UK patients benefit from organs offered by other European countries. This cooperation increases the chance of a suitable recipient being found, ensuring that precious organs do not go to waste. Tissue might also be offered to patients in other countries.
Are there religious objections to organ and tissue donation?
No. None of the major religions in the UK objects to organ and tissue donation and transplantation. If you have any doubts, discuss them with your spiritual or religious adviser. In addition, the Organ Donation Directorate of NHS Blood and Transplant has produced a series of leaflets that focus on the six major religions in the UK.
Does the colour of my skin make a difference?
No. However, organs are matched by blood group and tissue type (for kidney transplants) and the best-matched transplants have the best outcome. Patients from the same ethnic group are more likely to be a close match. A few people with rare tissue types may only be able to receive a well-matched organ from someone of the same ethnic origin, so it’s important that people from all ethnic backgrounds donate organs.
Successful transplants are carried out between people from different ethnic groups wherever the matching criteria are met.
Is there any point in making a special appeal if someone desperately needs an organ?
Yes and no. Any special appeal usually results in more people agreeing to become donors and can increase the number of organs available. However, family appeals through the newspapers and television will not result in an organ immediately becoming available for the person on whose behalf the appeal was made. The patient will still be on the transplant list, just like everyone else, and the rules that govern the matching and allocation of donor organs to recipients still apply.
Can I agree to donate some organs or tissue and not others?
Yes. You can specify which organs you would wish to donate. Simply tick the appropriate boxes on the NHS Organ Donor Register form or on the donor card, and let those close to you know what you’ve decided.
Will organs or tissue that are removed for transplant be used for research purposes?
Organs and tissue that cannot be used for transplant will only be used for medical or scientific research purposes if specific permission has been obtained from your family.
How is organ donation different from organ retention?
The problems of organ retention arose because proper consent was not obtained from parents or relatives for organs and tissue removed at post-mortem to be kept for research or other purposes. The law was changed because of these problems and the Human Tissue Act 2004 and the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006 were introduced. Organs and tissue are only removed for transplantation if permission has been given.
Would a donor’s family ever know who the recipient was?
Confidentiality is always maintained, except in the case of living donors who already know each other. If the family wish, they’ll be given some brief details, such as the age and sex of the person or persons who have benefited from the donation. Patients who receive organs can obtain similar details about their donors. It’s not always possible to provide recipient information to donor families for some types of tissue transplant.
Those involved may want to exchange anonymous letters of thanks or good wishes through the transplant coordinators. In some instances donor families and recipients have arranged to meet.
Can people buy or sell organs?
No, the transplant laws in the UK absolutely prohibit the sale of human organs or tissue.
Can a deceased person donate sperm or eggs for future use?
While it is possible to retrieve sperm or eggs it is illegal to store either or to create an embryo without the prior written consent of the donor.
Can someone with HIV or hepatitis C donate?
Yes. In very rare cases, the organs of donors with HIV or hep C have been used to help others with the same conditions. This procedure would only ever be carried out where both parties have the condition. All donors undergo rigorous checks to guard against infection.
Donated bodies are used to teach students about the structure of the body and how it works, through anatomical examination. The whole body and body parts can also be used to train surgeons, other healthcare professionals and for medical research. Organisations which carry out these activities are licensed by the HTA (Human Tissue Authority). People need to decide in advance to donate their body to medical science after their death, and their donations are highly valued by medical staff, students and researches.
Consideration is given to the pace and cause of death, the condition of the body at the time of death and demand in the medical schools. The body may then be accepted. Bodies may be refused if there has been a post-mortem or if any major organs except the cornea have been removed.
If accepted and after the body has fulfilled its full potential, the medical schools will arrange and pay for a simple funeral, or the relatives can do this for themselves. The medical school can advise relatives when the body is available for funeral.
Contact the Human Tissue Authority about whole body donation (in England and Wales):
Human Tissue Authority
151 Buckingham Palace Road
Tel: 020 7269 1900
Body Donation Q & A’s
Frequently asked questions about body donation.
What is the role of the HTA in body donation?
Anatomy is the study of the structure and functions of the body. The HTA licenses and inspects establishments, such as medical schools, which teach anatomy using donated bodies.
The HTA provides general information on body donation but does not provide detailed information on behalf of each establishment, such as body donation acceptance criteria or opening times. This kind of information can only be obtained directly from the establishment.
If you require further assistance, you can contact one of the HTA Regulation Assistants: 020 7211 3437 / 020 7211 3442.
If I choose to donate my body, what can it be used for?
With your consent, your donated body can be used for a number of possible uses:
1.”Anatomical examination” – this term describes the teaching of the structure and function of the human body to students or healthcare professionals
2.”Research” – this term describes scientific studies which improve the understanding of the human body
3.”Education and training” – these terms describe the training of healthcare professionals, usually those learning surgical techniques, as opposed to anatomical examination.
What do I need to do in order to donate my body?
Under the Human Tissue Act, written consent must be given prior to death; consent cannot be given by anyone else after your death. A consent form can be obtained from your local medical school and a copy should be kept in your will. You should also inform your family, close friends and GP that you wish to donate your body.
Contact details for medical schools are available on the HTA website
I signed a body donation consent form 10 years ago and just heard that a new law, affecting body donation, came into force in 2006. Will the consent form I originally signed be accepted when I die or must I complete a new form?
Although the new law affecting body donation (the Human Tissue Act 2004) came into force on 1 September 2006, it allows documented and valid consent for body donation made under the old law to be honoured. The ease with which your body donation offer is accepted might be improved if you include an updated intention to donate your body in your Will. More details can be obtained directly from the anatomy establishment to which you wish to donate your body.
I have recently moved to a different part of the country. Will I need to fill in a new body donation consent form?
Not necessarily. A form completed for one anatomy establishment might also be acceptable to another. More details can be obtained directly from the anatomy establishment to which you wish to donate your body.
If you have moved to a new area of the country, but still want to donate your body to the anatomy establishment linked to your old post code, please contact the establishment for more details. Some medical schools may request that your estate contributes to the cost of transporting your body if the donation falls outside of the medical school’s local area.
Can I donate my body if I am also on the organ transplant donor register?
People who choose to donate their body or organs do so in the hope that they will be useful to others after their death. Despite being separate donation systems, it is possible for a person to be registered as an organ donor and to have registered their wish to donate their body, after death, to a medical school.
Medical schools will usually decline a body donation if the person has undergone surgery to remove organs for transplantation. However, if after their death, the person is found unsuitable to be an organ donor, then body donation to a medical school can be taken forward by the relatives, solicitor or executor of the will.
If a person wishes to register for both organ donation and body donation, the HTA suggests that the person includes this in their will and ensures that those closest to them are aware of their wishes.
Are there any limitations or conditions to body donation?
All medical schools welcome the offer of a donation. However, certain medical conditions may lead to the offer being declined. These conditions and any other reasons for a body donation being declined, can be obtained from each medical school.
What happens if my body is not accepted?
If a medical school is unable to accept your donation, they may be able to help you find another school which can accept your body.
However, if no medical school is able to accept your offer, your estate will need to make suitable funeral arrangements.
If I donate my body, will there be a funeral or memorial service?
Medical schools will usually arrange for donated bodies to be cremated, unless the family request the return of the body for a private burial or cremation.
Medical schools may hold a memorial service. Further information can be obtained directly from the medical school.
Can I donate my body to a specific cause or medical school?
Medical schools which accept donated bodies will normally only accept donations from within their local area due to the transport costs involved. Offers of body donation from outside the area may be accepted on the condition that the donor’s estate bears the cost of transporting the body. Full details can be obtained directly from the medical school. Contact details for medical schools are available to download from the right-hand side of this page.
Several medical schools are also involved in research requiring donated bodies. Your local school will be able to advise you of this.
Alternatively, the following human tissue banks accept brain and spinal tissue for research into specific medical conditions. As well as needing particular types of tissue from people with the conditions named below, they also accept donations of brain and spinal tissue from people without these conditions as controls to the research.
* London Neurodegenerative Diseases Brain Bank
Tel: 020 7848 0290
* Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Tissue Bank
Tel: 020 7594 9734
Tel for outside office hours: 07659 132045
* Parkinson’s Disease Tissue Bank
Tel: 020 7594 9732
Tel for outside office hours: 07659 104537
* Brain Bank for Autism and Related Developmental Research, Oxford University
Tel: 0800 089 0707
Are there any costs or payments involved?
You will not receive any payment for donating your body.
Some medical schools may request that the donor’s estate contribute to the cost of transporting the body, particularly if the donation falls outside of the medical school’s local area. Full details can be obtained directly from the medical school