Heart Health

Updated 28 September 2016

The gift of organ donation saves up to 7 lives

Every year fewer transplants are performed in South Africa – while the demand for organs gets bigger every day.


According to the Organ Donor Foundation there are currently 4 300 South African children, teens and adults on the waiting list for lifesaving organ transplants. In 2012, a total of 573 organ and tissue transplants took place in South Africa.

“Waiting is a daunting experience because in some cases, depending on how critical the condition is, many waiting patients rely on family members to take care of them. This means that it’s not only the person waiting for the organ or tissue who is affected by the situation, but the whole family,” says Samantha Volschenk, Organ Donor Foundation Executive Director.

“Some patients waiting for heart transplants make use of mechanical devices which replace the functions of a heart, but only for a short period of time. Other patients go on dialysis while waiting for transplants to replace their failing kidneys.

“It costs more to keep someone on dialysis for a number of years than it would to have a once-off transplant,” she adds.

Becoming an organ donor can help save up to seven lives: your heart, liver and pancreas can save three lives and your kidneys and lungs can help up to four people. Furthermore, the donation of tissues such as corneas, skin, bone and heart valves can save up to 50 lives.

Common myths

Becoming an organ donor is easy, yet there are many unnecessary fears and myths surrounding organ donation.

One of the most common fears is that doctors won’t make sure that you are really dead before removing your organs.

“This fear is totally unfounded,” says Fiona McCudie, a transplant co-ordinator at Groote Schuur Hospital.

“While it is essential that organs and tissues are removed as soon as possible after death, in order to ensure successful transplantation, brain death has to be certified by two independent doctors.”

Two doctors, who are completely independent of the transplant team, have to perform detailed tests before a person can be declared brain dead. The criteria for brain death are very strictly adhered to and accepted medically, legally and ethically in South Africa and internationally.

Another fear is that organ donation could leave the body disfigured and delay the funeral.

According to the Organ Donor Foundation the utmost respect and dignity is given to the donor at all times.

“The recovery of organs and tissue are carried out with great care by surgeons and trained staff and the process does not change the way the body looks. And, as soon as the donated organs/tissue have been removed, the body is returned to the family to bury or cremate,” says Volschenk.

“Donating an organ or a tissue does not have any disadvantages that I am aware of and besides that it can makes a person consider their own death. It is more of a feel-good factor because you make a difference by saving someone’s life; you give them the gift of life again.”

Any person of any age who is in good health can donate. However, people with infectious diseases, cancer, type 1 diabetes and HIV, are not be able to donate.

Living organ donation

According to Volschenk, it is possible to be an organ donor, not only after death, but also while you are alive, depending on the organ or tissue required. “In most cases donating while alive occurs between family members, as the blood groups and tissue types are more compatible and ensure a higher success rate.”

The organ most commonly given by a living donor is a kidney. Other donations include parts of the liver, lung or pancreas, or skin donation for serious burn victims.

“When it comes to living donation, such as donating a kidney to a family member, a series of physical and psychological tests will be done to ensure that a person is healthy and donating for the right reasons,” says Volschenk.

“The recipients will sometimes be under medical treatment and will need to be compliant with the requirements of the treatment and have regular check-ups with their doctors. If a person waiting for a transplant gets ill, for example with TB, then they need to be fully treated for their condition before they can receive an organ. A live donor transplant will be postponed if the recipient (or donor) is ill.”

According to McCudie, recipients stay in hospital for varying amounts of time after the operation, depending on how well they recover and how well the transplanted organ is functioning and whether there are any complications. It can vary from a week to a few months.

“They start taking immune-suppression medication (to prevent rejection of the organ) from the day of the operation and this will continue for the rest of their lives. In the beginning the doses are quite large and then they get reduced as the years go by.“

By becoming an organ donor you can help thousands of individuals and their many family members who unnecessarily suffer. Becoming an organ donor only takes a few minutes, but will leave a legacy of life for others.

"I would like to call on people who consider organ donation, to contact the organisation closest to their home town. Donating an organ can save a life. We are constantly faced with the challenge of overcoming the problem of not having sufficient organ donors,” urged the Western Cape Minister of Health, Theuns Botha.

Register online, e-mail info@organdonor.org.za or phone 0800 22 66 11 (toll free).


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