Organ donation: a very personal decision

An organ or tissue transplant can help sick or injured people and save lives. In Germany people can actively decide to donate organs or tissue after their death. An organ donor card documents this decision. But who can be considered as a donor? And why is the subject of organ donation so important?

At a glance

  • Anyone who has put their decision to donate organs after death in writing can spare their loved ones a difficult decision if the worst happens.
  • Organs cannot be retrieved from a willing donor after their death unless brain death has been verified beyond all doubt.
  • When removing organs for the organ donation, surgeons work as carefully as they would on any other operation.
  • The organ transplant law creates legal certainty and prevents abuses.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Organ donation: a hospital trolley (gurney) is visible in the foreground. A person is carrying a refrigerate container for transplant organs in the background, out of focus.

What is organ donation?

In Germany over 9,000 people are currently waiting for a donor organ – it would be life-saving for many of them. The demand for donor organs is far greater than the supply. Figures from the German Organ Transplant Foundation (“Deutsche Stiftung Organtransplantation”, DSO) for 2021 show that 933 people in the country donated over 2,900 organs after their death, with around half of these organs being kidneys.

As well as deceased organ donation (in other words, donation after death), a living organ donation is also possible. With deceased organ donation, a person who, for health reasons, is dependent on it, receives a new organ from a deceased donor. In these cases the kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas, small intestine, and various tissues such as the cornea can be used.

With a living organ donation an organ or part of an organ is taken from a healthy person and put into the patient. However, not every organ is suitable for this – for example, transplants of one kidney or part of the liver are possible.

Important: The decision as to whether and which organs and tissues someone is prepared to donate can be documented by means of an organ donor card or an advance healthcare directive. This does not have to be a decision made forever: someone who changes their mind about organ and tissue donation can destroy the current document and create a new one whenever they wish.

What are the requirements for an organ donation?

The Transplant Act passed in 1997 regulates the donation, retrieval, allocation and transfer of organs that are donated after death or while the donor is living. To prevent abuses, the law makes it illegal to trade in organs and tissue.

Deceased donations – consent and confirmation of death

A deceased donation is only possible with the donor’s consent. This means that the donor must give their consent to the organ or tissue donation while still alive. A person is entitled to make this decision after their 16th birthday. But a person can reject organ donation when they are 14. If the deceased person has not made a decision, the next of kin makes the decision based what they presume the deceased person’s wishes would have been.

It is an essential condition for retrieving organs from deceased persons that brain death has been confirmed. For this purpose, two specialist doctors must confirm, independently of one another, that the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the brain stem have definitively ceased to function, and they must record these findings. This ensures that the organs are only retrieved if the donor is dead beyond all doubt and that doctors can do nothing more for them.

For the purpose of organ donation, the cardiovascular system must be kept going artificially until the organs are retrieved. As the heart stops first in most deaths, only very few deceased people can even be considered as potential organ donors. Things are a little different with tissue donation. As tissue usually has less of a blood supply than the organs, a donation may still be possible for up to 72 hours after the cardiovascular system has stopped functioning. Confirmation of brain death by two experts is also a prerequisite for tissue retrieval.

In general, there is no upper age limit for an organ donation – the crucial factor is the health of the deceased person and the condition of their organs. There are also only very few illnesses that definitively rule out an organ donation. These include, for example, acute cancers and infectious diseases. With other illnesses, the doctors concerned decide on suitability for donation on a case-to-case basis.

Living organ donation – protecting the health of the donor

To be eligible, living organ donors must be over the age of consent, signed an informed consent form, be a suitable donor and have undergone an assessment.

A living organ donation can have risks attached for the healthy donor. So there are strict requirements. Only organs from close relatives or loved ones can be considered for donation – for example, from parents, children, or life partners – or from someone who is obviously personally attached and close to the organ recipient. The potential donor must be an adult and competent to give their consent. They must also consent voluntarily to the removal after it has been fully explained, and must be suitable to be a donor in the doctors’ judgment. The ethics commissions of the federal states make an assessment to ensure that consent is given voluntarily.

What are the stages involved in deceased organ donation?

After brain death and consent to donation have been established beyond all doubt, experienced surgeons remove the organs with the same care they would use in an operation on a living patient. They then close the surgical wound and hand the donor over in a dignified condition in case they are to be laid out prior to burial or cremation. Friends and family can say goodbye to the deceased person as they wish.

The donated organs are carefully examined and the tissue characteristics and blood group are determined so that suitable recipients can be identified. This is done by the Eurotransplant Foundation. A non-profit organization, Eurotransplant coordinates the exchange of all donor organs in eight European countries, so that all patients on the waiting list can be provided for as efficiently and fairly as possible. People who are in acute, life-threatening situations are given priority when allocations are made.

If Eurotransplant has identified a suitable recipient, the Foundation notifies the relevant transplant center, which immediately begins to prepare the recipient, in order to minimize the time between retrieving the organs and transplanting them, and thus increasing the chances of success.

Why is it a good idea for people to put their consent in writing?

In terms of willingness to donate organs, what is known as the decision solution (“Entscheidungslösung”) applies in Germany. This means that organs and tissue can only be retrieved from deceased persons for transplantation purposes if the individuals have given their consent while alive. Ideally, they will document their decision by means of an organ donor card, an advance healthcare directive or another written declaration. In the future, there will also be a central organ and tissue donation register for this purpose.

If the body of a deceased person is suitable for organ donation a check is made for an organ donation card.

If there is no written statement, doctors in the hospital ask the next of kin about the presumed wishes of the deceased person, and ask them to make a decision based on these. This sort of decision at a time of mourning can be an additional stress on relatives, or be too much for them. If the deceased person has filled in a card or put an advance healthcare directive in place, this can spare loved ones this kind of stress and ensure that the person’s own wishes are carried out.

Where can people get an organ donor card and where should this card be kept?

The statutory and private health insurance providers regularly send their policy holders informative material and an organ donor card by post. But the pre-printed card, in the same format as a bank card, is also available in many medical practices, pharmacies, hospitals and registry offices.

An organ donor card can also be requested, free of charge, from the “Federal Center for Health Education” (Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung, BZgA).

The card can also be filled in online and printed out.

The organ donor card should be easy to find. It’s a good idea for people to always keep their card with them, together with their personal documents. It’s important for people to also inform their next of kin about their decision and to let them know where the donor card is kept.

What is the organ donation register?

By the end of 2022, it is expected that an organ donation register will be open to all German citizens. This will be a centralized, electronic online register managed by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (“Bundesinstitut für Arzneimittel und Medizinprodukte”, BfArM) – an authority that falls under the Federal Ministry of Health. In the future, you will be able to submit your own personal declaration regarding the donation of your tissues and organs to this organ donation register. Your data will be stored there securely and protected from access by unauthorized third parties. You will be able to access your declaration at any time. In the event of your death, only authorized hospital staff can access it to determine whether you have decided to donate your organs and tissues following confirmation of your death.

Where can I find more information about organ donations?

The team who run the organ donation hotline of the Federal Center for Health Education (“Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung”, BZgA) are available to answer any questions about organ and tissue donation. The line is staffed from Monday to Friday between 9am and 6pm toll free on 0800 9040400.

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