Tissue donation process

Sometimes donors will donate eyes or tissue but not organs. This might happen because, although a donor wished to donate their organs as well as their eyes and tissue, the organs weren't suitable for donation. One donor can transform the lives of many people - there are often 20-30 recipients who benefit from one multi-tissue donor. 

When a potential donor is identified, a DonateLife Donor Coordinator or a coordinator from the eye/tissue bank will contact the family of the deceased via phone to discuss possible tissue donation. Families are supported during this phone call by the Donor Coordinator or eye/tissue bank staff. 

After a family gives consent, they are asked to complete the necessary paperwork, including a questionnaire about the potential donor's medical and social history, to confirm the donation. The donor's GP might be contacted to provide further information.

Although the same ethical and legal standards apply to eye and tissue donation, the donation process is different to that of organ donation.

Below is some information on the donation process.

How is eye and tissue retrieved?

Eye and tissue retrieval is performed by specially qualified and trained health professionals. The donation usually occurs in an operating theatre or a special area set aside for tissue retrieval of tissues in a mortuary. 

Tissue is retrieved through operations with incisions carefully sutured as would follow any normal surgical procedure. There is only a light graze following skin donation. When skin is donated, only a small section of one layer is retrieved from the torso or legs, resembling the skin that peels from sunburn. Some hospitals also undertake live femoral head donation, where the head of the femur is retrieved as part of a total hip replacement operation.

The donor's body is always treated with the utmost respect and dignity.

What happens after the operation?

After the eye/tissue has been removed, staff will restore the donor's body to its normal shape and appearance. This includes replacing bone with prosthetics to restore the body's natural form, or using prosthetic eyes to restore the shape of the eyes. When skin is retrieved from a donor, it is taken from an inconspicuous place.

Where can eye and tissue donation occur?

Eye and tissue donation can usually occur up to 24 hours after death, depending on which tissues are being donated. In Australia, tissue donation after death occurs mainly in major cities where tissue banks are found.  Hospitals and mortuaries in regional Australia are not equipped to undertake tissue donation.

How long can tissue be stored before use?

Even though eye and tissue donation usually occurs within 24 hours from the time of death, corneas from donated eyes can be stored for up to 30 days (depending on the storage method used) and are usually transplanted within one month of donation.   Heart tissue, bone and skin tissue can be safely stored for up to five years.

Read the Eye and Tissue donation fact sheet (648 KB PDF)


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