Organ and tissue donation — Your questions answered

Poppy's team outside Poppy's HQ in Lambeth cemetery, holding up pink signs to promote organ donation awareness week
Poppy's team supporting Organ Donation Awareness Week

Six minute read

Many people want to donate their organs or tissue after death to save lives. Donated organs and tissue can help people in need of a transplant or can contribute to medical research.

However, sometimes family and friends don’t know the wishes of the person who has died or don’t act quickly enough. The opportunity to donate organs or tissue can be missed.

Organ Donation Week in the UK is 26 September to 2 October. It’s a great opportunity to find out the facts and start conversations with the people closest to you, so that they understand what they need to do to fulfil your wishes.

To help get you talking, we’ve compiled some common questions and answers about organ donation, medical research and funerals.

Do I need to register if I want to become an organ donor?

No. In England, since 2020, everyone can be considered as an organ donor, unless they opt out. Organ donation is when you decide to give an organ to save or transform the life of someone else. Every organ donor has the potential to save up to nine lives. If you definitely don’t want to be an organ donor, you can register to opt out here.

Even if you are on the register, your organs will not be donated if your next-of-kin objects. Medical staff will talk with them about the process and answer their questions.

If your family or friends don’t know your wishes, it may make this decision harder for them. Explaining to them what you want before you die means that they don’t have to guess what your wishes are or feel under pressure to make a decision while they are grieving.

Registering to be an organ donor, and telling your friends or family that you have done so, is one way to make your intentions clear. Register to opt in here.

Decisions about organ donation need to be taken rapidly after death, so simply writing your wishes into your will may mean they are discovered too late.

Once you have registered to opt in or opt out of organ donation, you can change your mind at any point and change your status on the register.

Can anyone donate their organs?

You can only donate your organs for transplant if you die in hospital under certain conditions. However, even if you cannot donate organs, it may still be possible to donate tissues, such as skin, bone, tendons, eyes and arteries. In particular, almost anyone can be a cornea donor.

The decision about whether or not your organs are suitable for donation rests with the medical team in charge of your care. Decisions take place on a case-by-case basis and the options will be discussed with your next-of-kin.

There are very few health conditions that make it impossible to donate any of your organs. Even if you have had cancer in the past, depending on the type of cancer and as long as you have been out of treatment for at least three years, it should be possible to be an organ donor.

There is no upper age limit. If you are under 18, you can join the organ donor register, but organ donation would only go ahead with parental agreement. Find further information from the NHS about who can or can’t become an organ donor.

I want to donate my organs, but I don’t like the thought of my body being messed around with after I’ve died.

As a donor you will always be treated with dignity and respect.

A specialist surgical team will operate to remove the organs for donation as soon as possible after your death. They will take just as much care as they would with a living patient. Your faith and beliefs will be respected.

I’d like to donate my brain tissue for medical research. Do I need to register?

You do not have to register, as your next-of-kin can register on your behalf after your death, but it is extremely helpful if you do. As most brain banks are only able to accept donations in the first 72 hours after someone has died, registering in advance helps them to act quickly.

Unlike organ donation for transplants, there is no central register for potential brain tissue donors. You will need to contact your nearest brain bank to register and fill in some forms. The brain bank is also likely to need to contact your GP for medical information about you. There is a list of brain banks here.

Brain tissue is used for research into neurological conditions, such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease. Therefore, tissue is needed from people who have these conditions, as well as ‘control’ tissue from people who don’t. Read more about signing up to be a brain tissue donor.

If I want to donate my brain tissue for medical research, what will my family or friends need to do after I die?

Each brain bank has slightly different processes and requirements. However, they all will need your family or friends to get in touch with them as soon as possible when you are approaching the end of life or after your death. The tissue bank will assess your suitability at this time.

If you die at home, they will need to arrange for a funeral director to collect your body. The funeral director will then liaise with the brain bank to arrange the donation. If you die in hospital, the donation will take place in hospital, and the funeral director will collect your body afterwards.

At Poppy's, we have assisted in situations like these where someone wants to donate brain tissue.

Is it okay to visit someone after they have died if they have donated their organs or their brain tissue?

Yes, absolutely. Their body will not necessarily look any different from someone who has not donated their organs. As with anyone in our care, you would be welcome to visit. If there are changes to their appearance, we will explain these in a clear and gentle way.

Find out more about visiting someone at Poppy’s

Will donating my organs or my brain tissue delay the funeral or affect funeral plans?

No. Donating organs or brain tissue is done very rapidly after death, so this will not affect any funeral plans or the timing of the funeral.

I’d like to donate my whole body to a medical school. Do I need to register?

Yes. You need to make a positive declaration in writing that you intend to donate your body for this purpose. No one else can make this decision on your behalf. You cannot also be an organ donor if you want to donate your body to medical research.

Medical schools need bodies to help students study human anatomy. You can find out how to contact your nearest medical school here. Each medical school has a slightly different process and requirements that you will need to be familiar with.

Once you have died, your family will need to contact the relevant medical school to arrange the collection of your body. Find out more information from the Human Tissue Authority.

I’m not sure my family or friends are ready to talk about my wishes for organ, tissue or body donation with me. How and when should I start the conversation?

Talking about death can be difficult and emotional. We know this isn’t always easy to discuss, but knowing what your wishes are can be a real gift to the people you care about.

You can have these conversations at any time, even when you are in good health. They may be more willing to talk than you realise. There are some great tips here from the NHS about how to talk about organ donation.

Read about Gemma’s experience of donating her husband’s organs after he died.

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