Organ and tissue donors can save and transform lives.
The below information provides useful facts about organ and tissue donation. At the end of this page you will also find links to additional resources to assist your school projects.
What is organ and tissue donation?
Organ donation is a life-saving and life-transforming medical process. Organ and tissue donation involves removing organs and tissues from someone who has died (a donor) and transplanting them into someone who, in many cases, is very ill or dying (a recipient).
Why do people need transplants?
People who need an organ transplant are usually very ill or dying because an organ is failing. They range from babies and children through to older people.
People in end-stage liver, heart or lung failure will die unless they have a transplant, while people with kidney failure can usually be placed on dialysis until a kidney becomes available. This requires them to have dialysis up to eight hours a day, several days a week.
People who need a tissue transplant can also be of any age. In some cases, tissue can save lives. More often, it greatly improves the recipient’s life.
Around 1,400 people are officially waiting for an organ transplant at any time in Australia.
Who can become an organ and tissue donor?
Almost everyone can help others through organ and tissue donation. The governing factors are where and how a donor dies and the condition of their organs and tissues.
While your age and medical history will be considered, you shouldn't assume you're too young, too old or not healthy enough to become a donor. All major religions support organ and tissue donation for transplantation. Older Australians and people with chronic health conditions can be donors. Only a few medical conditions preclude donation of organs.
Less than 1% of all people who die in hospital can be considered for organ donation because they must die in specific circumstances. Because the opportunity to become an organ donor is rare, it is important that we all make a decision about what we want and that we discuss it with our family.
What organs and tissue can be donated?
Organs that can be transplanted include the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, intestine and pancreas.
Tissues that can be transplanted include heart valves and other heart tissue, bone, tendons, ligaments, skin and parts of the eye such as the cornea and sclera.
How does the donation process work?
When a person dies in a situation where they can become an organ and/or tissue donor, the possibility of donation is raised with the family.
The Australian Organ Donor Register is checked to find out whether the deceased person had registered their decision regarding organ and tissue donation. A donation specialist will meet with the family to talk about donation.
The family of a potential donor is given time to discuss and reach a decision on whether donation will occur. If donation is agreed, documentation will confirm the donation and which organs and tissues are being donated.
During and after the process, the donor’s family are supported by DonateLife organ and tissue donation specialist staff.
All donations and transplants are performed by specialist medical teams in the Australian public health system.
How are organs and tissue removed?
The removal of organs and tissues is no different to any other surgical procedure.
The donor’s body is always treated with dignity and respect. The donation of organs and tissues doesn’t alter the physical appearance of the donor, nor does it affect funeral arrangements.
When can organ and tissue donation occur?
The way a person dies determines whether they are able to donate organs and tissues.
A person may be able to donate organs when they have been declared brain dead and are being artificially ventilated in hospital. Brain death is when blood circulation to the brain ceases, the brain stops functioning and dies with no possibility of recovery. A series of tests carried out by two independent and appropriately-qualified senior doctors establishes that brain death has occurred.
People can be confused about the difference between brain death and being in a coma.
A patient in a coma is unconscious because their brain is injured in some way; however their brain continues to function and may heal. With brain death, there is no possibility whatsoever that the brain will recover. Medical tests clearly distinguish between brain death and being in a coma.
Organ donation may also be possible after a person’s heart has stopped beating, referred to as ‘cardiac death’, however this is less common.
Less than one per cent of people who die in hospital will be eligible to donate their organs. Therefore it is very important to identify all potential donors and support their families to make informed decisions about donation.
A far greater number of people have the opportunity to donate tissues for transplantation.
For transplantation to be successful, tissue donation doesn’t require the donor’s death to have occurred under the same limited circumstances as organ donation. Unlike organs, tissue can be stored for varying periods of time.
Can I choose who gets my organs and tissue?
No. Organs are allocated to transplant recipients in a fair, equitable process that takes no account of race, religion, gender, social status, disability or age - unless age is relevant to the organ matching criteria.
Waiting lists are managed by different groups according to the organ involved and the state or territory where the recipient is located.
Australia has strict guidelines about the allocation of organs and tissues. The Transplantation Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) has developed guidelines for organ transplantation, Organ Transplantation from Deceased Donors: Consensus Statement on Eligibility Criteria and Allocation Protocols.
Allocation is a complex process. When an organ (other than kidneys) becomes available for donation, a DonateLife donor coordinator passes the necessary information to transplant units in that state. If there is no suitable recipient, the organ is offered to transplant units in other states and territories on a roster basis that is designed to promote equity.
Criteria used in considering potential organ transplant recipients include:
- how well the organs match the person
- how long the person has been waiting for a transplant
- how urgent the transplant is
- whether the organ can be made available to the person in time.
Can you register your decision to be a donor?
People 16 years of age or older can register their donation decision on the Australian Organ Donor Register.
The Australian Organ Donor Register (the Donor Register) is the only national register for people to record their decision about becoming an organ and tissue donor for transplantation after death.
The Donor Register ensures a person’s donation decision can be verified 24 hours a day, seven days a week by authorised personnel anywhere in Australia. In the event of a person’s death, information about their donation decision, accessed from the Donor Register by authorised personnel, can be provided to the family of the deceased.
Recording your decision on the Donor Register is voluntary and you have complete choice over which organs and tissues you wish to donate. If you don’t want to become an organ and tissue donor, you can register your decision not to donate on the Donor Register.
Why do families need to discuss and know each other’s donation decision?
It is important for every Australian family to discuss and know each other’s donation decisions.
People of any age regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion can one day need a life-transforming or life-saving transplant. Around 1,400 people are on Australian organ transplant waiting lists at any one time.
Very few people – less than 1 per cent – will die in hospital in the specific circumstances where organ donation is possible. Many more have the opportunity to donate tissue.
To optimise every potential organ and tissue donor, every Australian family needs to ask and know their loved ones’ donation decisions. This is because, in Australia, the family of every potential donor will be asked to confirm the donation decision of their loved one before organ and/or tissue donation can proceed.
Although 69% of Australians have discussed the subject with family members, only 53% of people know their loved ones’ donation decisions. Importantly, 94% of those who do know their loved ones’ donation decision say they would uphold their decision.
Is organ and tissue donation against my religion?
Many Australians of diverse backgrounds are unsure about whether their culture or faith supports or allows organ and tissue donation. This uncertainty is one of the key barriers to making a decision, or sharing that decision with loved ones.
Most religions support organ and tissue donation as an act of compassion and generosity.
For more information about your faith and culture in a range of languages, take a look at our multicultural resources.