“Will They Let Me Die If I’m a Donor?”

Tackling Donation Myths: One banker’s worry and the process of donation after death

By Kerry Halladay - January 16, 2024

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions that surround all forms of organ and tissue donation, including donating eye tissue. Even though the U.S. has one of the most robust cultures of donation, a lot of people still have concerns.

Having worries and uncertainties about donation is completely normal. Organ and tissue donation information can be very technical. Unless you have been personally touched by donation, there’s no reason for you to know about it in depth. Plus, we in the U.S. don’t often talk about death openly. So, all around, it is very normal to have questions, concerns, and worries about donation after death.

A common question is: “Will doctors, nurses, and emergency responders let me die if they know I’m a donor?”

The short answer is a resounding “NO!”

That said, it is a very understandable, widespread worry. It was a worry that Don (name changed for privacy) had, and it kept him from registering to be a donor.

Meeting that Worry in the Wild

Don is a banker who helps clients with big life planning needs. During an estate planning meeting with Kerry, a member of the RMLEB community and professional relations team, he bemoaned the fact that few people make end of life plans. Worse, even fewer tell their families about their decisions!

Since talking to family is hugely important in the world of eye, organ, and tissue donation, Kerry commiserated. Also — since it is impossible to keep a communicator from seizing an opportunity to tell people about what they do — Kerry told Don about how important it is for registered donors to tell their family about their decision.

That’s when the tone changed. Don’s financial advisor voice went away. He asked if he could ask some questions.

Wouldn’t an EMT see the heart on the driver license and just… not bother? Wouldn’t the hospital staff let someone die if they knew their patient was a donor? Wasn’t it a liability?

These questions stemmed from Don’s worry. He admitted later that he had previously decided to not register as a donor because of these concerns.

The Process of Becoming a Donor

The people who work in health care have the professional and ethical duty to act in the interests of their patients’ health and wellbeing. That is their goal. In most cases, they won’t know someone is a registered donor at all or until after the patient has died… if ever.

For example, when an EMT arrives at the scene of a crash, they are focused on trying to save the injured. That is their priority. They aren’t rifling around in crash victims’ wallets. Only after the critical care has been given, they might try to figure out who the person is, which could see them looking for an ID card. Even if they find it, they aren’t looking for the donation heart symbol. They are looking for identification to pass on to the hospital and possibly to police or other emergency responders so next of kin can be reached and alerted to the situation.

Similarly, the priority of nurses and doctors treating critical patients in the emergency room is to give care and save lives. They aren’t looking through wallets to notice donation heart symbols. Unless a patient directly tells their hospital staff that they are a registered donor, most nurses and doctors will never know their patients’ registration status.

According to the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act — the law that regulates eye, organ, and tissue donation — all deaths that happen in hospitals must be initially referred for donation within an hour. Most of the time it is a nurse, house supervisor, or hospital chaplain who makes this referral. So, it is possible that someone involved with a patient’s care learns about their registration status… but only after they have died.

Those details aside, the fact remains that medical personnels’ professional duty is to the interests of their patient. Your life, health, and wellbeing while you are alive is their priority. The care staff who work with you while you are alive are trying to keep you that way. The medical care team and the organ and tissue recovery staff are always separate groups.

The Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank and other donation recovery agencies become involved only after death has been declared and the decedent has been identified as a candidate for donation.

The Changing of a Mind

After Kerry told Don about all this, he said he had a lot to think about. But he also said he was grateful for the information. He said if he had known about the details before making the decision not to be a donor, he might have made a different decision.

If you’re not already a registered donor and this information has changed your mind about signing up, you can sign up online 24/7. Remember to renew your decision every time you get your driver license too and share your decision with those closest to you, especially if you’ve had a change of heart.

If you’re already a donor and have questions, feel free to contact us with your questions about eye tissue donation, or check out these sources of information:

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