The Gift Of Life - Becoming An Organ Donor

Ruth Hassell-Thompson

March 01, 2009

Did you know that an average of 17 people die every day waiting for a transplant of a vital organ because there are not enough donors? Since April has been designated as a month that honors organ donors–"our unsung heroes"–I would like to remind you how you can save a life by becoming an organ donor.

There are currently more than 85,000 individuals nationwide, including many thousands of New Yorkers, who are waiting for organ transplants. Additionally, tens of thousands more are waiting for vital tissue transplants. Organ and tissue transplantation has saved or enhanced the lives of thousands of men, women and children nationwide. According to the New York State Department of Health, one person who donates his or her organs can save up to 8 lives, while a tissue donor can significantly improve 12 or more lives by restoring eyesight, helping to fight infections in burn patients, and preventing the loss of arms and legs.

While each year in New York State, more than 1,000 kidneys, livers and hearts are transplanted thanks to hundreds of donors, many thousands of New Yorkers remain on waiting lists, because the need for organ donations greatly outnumbers availability. Furthermore, thousands of others–mostly burn and cancer patients–await tissue donations for lifesaving transplants. Without these surgeries, many will die or remain permanently disabled.

In New York State, family consent is required for organ and tissue donation. The New York State Organ and Tissue Donor Registry will ensure that an individual’s wishes to become a donor upon his or her death will be honored by family members and health care providers. Enrolling in New York’s Organ and Tissue Donor Registry is easy. Simply check the donor box on your driver’s license or non-driver identification card (ID) application or renewal form and you will be enrolled automatically. You can also enroll through the State Health Department’s web site at

Enrollment in the Donor Registry declares your intent to donate your organs and tissues after your death. The local organ procurement organization or tissue bank will then inform your family of your decision, since they must give their consent. It is certainly advisable to inform them of your intentions to become a donor, so they are clear at the time consent is requested.

Anyone can indicate their intent to donate. A person’s medical history or age does not automatically exclude him or her from doing so. Medical suitability for donation is determined at the time of death.

I have heard it expressed by some, that if one were to enroll in the Donor Registry, it will somehow negatively affect the quality of medical care one receives during a hospital stay. Not true! Rest assured that every effort is made to save a life before donation is considered. A transplant team does not become involved with the patient until doctors have determined that ALL possible efforts to save the patient’s life have failed. Furthermore, federal law prohibits the buying and selling of organs in the U.S. Violators are punishable by prison sentences and fines. I hope this information is helpful and clears up some misconceptions surrounding becoming an organ donor.

To shed further light on the donation process, my staff and I have developed a brochure that helps clarify many of the questions surrounding becoming an organ donor. It also provides a list of statewide and national organizations that serve as excellent resources about the procedure. To obtain a brochure, please contact my office at 718-547-8854.