Donated organs and tissues are in great demand as medical technology has made successful organ and tissue transplants safer, easier, and less expensive. Currently, common organ and tissue transplants are:
Tissues and corneas can be taken from almost anyone -- and are often used for research and study rather than transplants. However, there are often problems with donating major organs such as hearts, livers, or kidneys. For example, while there are tens of thousands of people now on waiting lists to receive kidneys alone, only about 1% of all people who die are suitable kidney donors.
To authorize organ donation, it's a good idea to obtain a donor card and carry it with you at all times. In many states, you can use your driver's license for this purpose; the motor vehicles department will give you a card to carry and perhaps a sticker to place on the front of your license.
In addition, a health care document (such as an advance directive or living will) is a good place to state your wishes regarding organ donation. An increasing number of states are providing a place on their official health care directive forms for such instructions, allowing you to specify not only the organs, tissues, or body parts that you want to donate but also the purposes for which your donation may be used -- for example, transplant, therapy, research, or education. (For more information about making health care documents, see The Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care: An Overview.)
Organ, tissue, or body donations must be carried out immediately after death, so if you want to be a donor, you should make arrangements in advance and discuss your plans and wishes with those closest to you -- especially your health care agent, if you have made an advance directive or power of attorney that names one.
Even if you have expressed a desire to donate your organs, an objection from close family members could defeat your intentions. The best safeguard is to put your wishes in writing and be sure family and friends know what they are. To learn more about what information your loved ones need and how to make sure they have it, see Final Arrangements FAQ.
For information on donating your entire body for medical research, see Donate Your Body to Medicine.
For more information on organ donation, and on getting organized for your own benefit and the benefit of your loved ones, see Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Melanie Cullen with Shae Irving (Nolo).