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The gift of life: tissue and organ donation

Did you know that one organ and tissue donor can help save 10 or more lives? At any given time there are more than 1,500 Australians waiting for organ and tissue transplants, with several hundred people at risk of dying if they're unable to receive a transplant.

Deciding whether or not to become an organ and tissue donor is not a decision that can be taken lightly, so it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can, and talk to your loved ones to help you decide what you would like to do.

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about becoming an organ and tissue donor.

Who can donate? 

Almost anyone can donate organs and tissues regardless of their age, state of health or lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking. You are not too old, too young or not healthy enough to donate.

For example, people who drink or smoke may not be able to donate their liver or lungs, but they may still be able to donate other organs and tissues. People with cancer have also been able to donate tissues. And older people have donated organs and tissues that have saved the lives of young people.

While your age and medical history will be considered, the place and cause of death, and the condition of your organs and tissues, will usually determine whether or not you can become a donor.

Is organ donation against my religious beliefs?

Most religions support organ and tissue donation including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.

Speak to your religious adviser if you would like more information.

Who can’t donate? 

If you have certain medical conditions, including infections (e.g. HIV) that can be spread in tissues and organs, this may mean that you can’t be a donor. Also, you may not be able to donate for 12 months after having a tattoo.

Who needs organ and tissue donations? 

There are many reasons why people need an organ or tissue transplant. Some children and adults have an inherited genetic condition, illness or disease that can severely affect their development or health, and even cause death, often at a young age. So an organ or tissue transplant can help improve someone’s health and extend their life.

Will my organs be used for medical research?

If you register as an organ donor, any donated organs and tissues will be used to help save or improve other people’s health and lives. Your tissues will not be used for medical research unless you or your family give specific written permission for this to happen.

If you choose to donate your body for medical research, this is a separate process managed through universities, so you would need to contact the university of your choice directly for more information.

You can be registered as both an organ and tissue donor, and with a body bequest program.

What organs or tissues can I donate? 

In Australia, you can donate these organs or tissues:

  • kidneys
  • liver
  • lungs
  • heart and heart valves
  • pancreas and pancreas islets
  • intestines
  • corneal and other eye tissue
  • skin
  • bone and bone marrow
  • muscle and skin tissue.

When can I donate?  

Some organs or tissues can be donated to others when you are alive, for example bone marrow, a kidney, or part of your liver.

Only 1 in every 100 donors or so will be able to donate their organs because of the circumstances of your death and other factors. Organ donation is more likely to take place when you have died in a hospital, because your heart, liver, kidneys and other organs and tissues can be kept artificially supplied with oxygen (using a ventilator) and properly looked after until they can be removed for transplant.

What is the process of donation? 

When someone dies, and their organs and tissues are considered suitable to donate, the Australian Organ Donor Register is checked to see whether the person is a registered donor.

If the person was not a registered donor, and there is no written or verbal objection, their family will be given information about the organ and tissue donation process and asked whether they agree to donation. Even if you are a registered donor, donation will not go ahead without your family's consent.

If your loved ones do agree to go ahead with donation, a number of things happen:

  • you will continue to receive all the medical care necessary to preserve your organ function, and at all times, you will be cared for as carefully and respectfully as if you were alive
  • your health and any lifestyle risks will be assessed to ensure the safety of transplanted organs and tissues, and to prevent any infections (e.g. HIV) being transmitted to any recipient(s)
  • blood tests may be performed to check for any risks
  • with your family’s consent, an autopsy may also be carried after you have died to make sure you didn’t have any undiagnosed conditions (such as cancer) that could affect the health of any recipient(s)
  • your family and loved ones will be kept informed and supported throughout by experienced staff and offered bereavement counselling.

If you are an organ donor, this won’t affect any funeral arrangements.

How can I become a donor? 

To join the Australian Organ Donor Register administered by Medicare Australia you can:

Let your loved ones know your wishes 

If you are already an organ or tissue donor, or thinking about becoming one, it’s important to discuss your wishes with your family and loved ones. Your loved ones may be faced with making this difficult decision at a very sad or traumatic time. Families are less likely to give their consent if they don’t know what your wishes are, and organ donation will not take place without your family’s consent. Knowing what your decision is can help them to carry out your wishes.

What support is there for my loved ones if I become a donor?

The Intensive Care Unit team caring for you, and the DonateLife Agency Donor and Donor Family Support Coordinators, will give your family as much support as they need.

The Donor Coordinator will be your family’s initial point of contact and will provide the link between your family and the medical team looking after you. They will also help your family after the donation, for example by arranging for them to view your body, and providing information about the support available to them in their state or territory.

The Coordinator can also provide information on the outcomes of the organ donation and give your family details about how to anonymously contact the recipients, if your family wishes.

Your family will also have access to free bereavement counselling.

Further information 

DonateLife
www.donatelife.gov.au

Transplant Australia
www.transplant.org.au

Sources 

Australian Government Organ and Tissue Authority. DonateLife [Online] 2015 [Accessed Mar 2015] Available from: www.donatelife.gov.au

Transplant Australia. The facts [Online] 2015 [Accessed Mar 2015] Available from: www.transplant.org.au

The University of Sydney. Discipline of Anatomy and Physiology. The Body Donor Programme [Online] 2015 [Last updated Sept 2014; accessed Mar 2015] Available from: sydney.edu.au/medicine

Last published: 12 March 2015

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.