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Organ and Tissue Donation in Alberta

Becoming a donor

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​How does a person become an organ or tissue donor?

While it is possible to provide a living donation, most often a person is considered an organ or tissue donor if he or she has been declared dead. In order to become an organ donor, the individual must die in a specific way which involves having been maintained on a​ ventilator in the intensive care unit. Tissue donation can generally proceed under more general circumstances of death.

What do I need to do to become an organ or tissue donor?

If you want to be an organ or tissue donor, you should:

  • talk about your wishes to be an organ and/or tissue donor with your family and tell them exactly what you want to happen when you die
  • if you are over 18, you can access the online Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry to record your choices about organ and/or tissue donation, or visit a Registry Agent office to register, or sign the back of your Alberta Personal Health Card (for cards issued before 2018).
  • call a Living Donor Program in your area if you want to be a living donor (kidney or part of the lung or liver or tissue such as bone marrow or stem cells)

What happens if I want to change my donation choices after I register?

If you change your mind, follow the same steps you took to register online, updating your choices on the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry (AOTDR). It’s important to talk with your family about the change in your donation choices.

What happens if I no longer wish to be registered as a donor?

If you’re thinking about withdrawing because you have questions about being an organ or tissue donor, call Health Link ​or talk to your doctor.

If you have already registered your donation wishes and wish to withdraw, you will need to re-access the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry and remove the selections you made earlier. It is a good idea to update your family about your choice to withdraw as a donor.

If you no longer want to be a donor, you can also withdraw from the Registry by calling 1-844-815-3315.

You can not withdraw your consent at Registry Agent offices.

Are there ever reasons that people can’t be organ or tissue donors?

People can be organ donors at any age. Tests are always conducted to ensure the quality of the organ. Livers have been successfully transplanted from 90 year old donors and lungs, liver, and kidneys have been transplanted from 70 year old donors.

People usually can’t be organ donors if they have cancer or HIV. Sometimes people with brain tumors may be able to donate organs if the cancer has not spread.

Anyone 80 years old and younger can be a tissue donor. But, people can’t be tissue donors if they have certain diseases (e.g., HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, sepsis) or certain high risk social behaviors.

What questions will be asked after consenting to be an organ and/or tissue donor?

The donor (for living donations) or next of kin (for other donations) will be asked questions about medical and social history. A questionnaire is used (like when you donate blood) to make sure that the organs and/or tissues are safe for transplant. The questions ask about any illnesses that the donor might have had and whether they were at risk for illnesses (e.g., history of using intravenous drugs).

What is brain death?

Brain death is the main way in which a person becomes an organ donor. When damage to the brain is severe, the brain swells. This swelling may stop all blood flow in the brain. With no blood flow, the brain doesn’t get oxygen and nutrients and it dies. Once the brain dies, the body will also die. The body can’t breathe on its own and must be maintained on a ventilator in an intensive care unit.

Sometimes, the body can keep working for a short time with medicines and a ventilator. When this happens, the brain is not functioning and the person has died. The person may still feel warm and the heart is beating, but the person is actually dead.

Brain death (also called neurological death) is usually diagnosed with tests done at least 2 times by 2 different doctors that specialize in this area. The tests can tell if:

  • the person can breathe without the ventilator
  • the person can respond
  • there is blood flow to the brain (brain perfusion scan)

Once a person is brain dead, the person has died. Brain death is not reversible and is different from a coma. Once the doctors say a person is brain dead, that is the legal time of the person’s death.

If someone dies outside the hospital (e.g., nursing home, private home, at the scene of an accident), can the person still be an organ donor?

No. If this happens, the person can’t be an organ donor. Organ donation is only possible when the heart is beating and the organs are getting blood and oxygen. But, it may be possible for the person to be a tissue donor, depending on the time and circumstances of death.

What if I choose to donate but my organs or tissues are not suitable?

If you make the choice to donate your organs or tissues and they are not suitable for transplantation, and if there is research ongoing that could use your organs or tissues, you can choose to allow them to be used for scientific research.

Can I donate my body to science and still be an organ and/or tissue donor?

If you want your body to be used for science (medical education or scientific research), you have to donate your whole body. This means that you can’t donate any organs or tissue other than your eyes if you donate your body to science. If you wish to donate your whole body then you must register with the anatomical gift program closest to you. Please check with the anatomical gift program in your area for further details about how to donate your body to science:

What if I want to donate my body or a family member’s body to science?

If you donate your whole body, which people often refer to as donating a body to science, you can’t be an organ or tissue donor. The common terminology for this kind of donation is donating a body for medical education or scientific research. This kind of donation is managed in universities and is called an anatomical gift program. You may be able to donate your eyes for transplant purposes under some programs, but you should check with your local anatomical gift and donation programs to learn if this option is available to you.

In Alberta, if you wish to donate your whole body to medical education or scientific research you must register with the anatomical gift program closest to you:

Please remember that body donation is different than donating your organs or tissues for transplant.

It is also important that you share your wishes with your family, and most importantly you must also register with the anatomical gift program closest to you.

If a person is a donor, does that information stay confidential?

Yes. The donation consent information stays confidential because it is health information, and health information is protected under legislation in Alberta. Information about your consent is only accessed when necessary by authorized professionals.

Is there a cost to donate organs or tissues?

In Canada, there is no cost to the donor or the donor's family for organ and tissue donation. Alberta Health covers all medical expenses. It’s against the law to sell organs or tissues in Canada.

How do families feel after a family member has donated organs or tissues?

Most families feel that organ and tissue donation helped ease their grief. They know that they were able to give the gift of life to another person in a tragic situation.

Are any tests needed before the organs and tissues can be used?

Yes. Donors are tested to ensure safety and quality of the organs and tissues. Testing differs somewhat between organ and tissue donors. In the case of organ donation, the person who died is checked in the intensive care unit to make sure the organs work properly. Even if the organs were healthy and strong before the person died, the death process may cause injury and sometimes the organs can’t be used. Tissue donors do not generally need this type of testing, as tissues are less sensitive to changes in function following death. To make sure organs and tissues are safe, the donor’s medical and social history are reviewed with the family. The questions asked are like what you are asked before you donate blood. The tests performed may include:

  • blood tests to look for infectious diseases
  • blood tests and a biopsy to check how well the liver is working
  • blood tests, an echocardiogram, and/or an angiogram to check how well the heart is working
  • a chest x-ray and other tests to make sure the lungs are healthy
  • blood tests, urine tests, and sometimes a biopsy of the kidney to check how well it’s working

When organs or tissues are donated, what is the risk of getting HIV or other diseases?

Organs and tissues being considered for transplant are tested extensively to make sure they are healthy and have no disease. While getting a disease from a donated organ or tissue is possible, the risk is very low. Talk to your doctor about any concerns.

Are there religious or spiritual issues around organ and tissue donation?

Feelings about organ and tissue donation are different for everyone. It’s a very personal matter. Talk to a religious leader or spiritual advisor if you have any questions. Most religious traditions are supportive of organ and tissue donation.

Current as of: March 31, 2020

Author: Organ and Tissue Donation Programs, Alberta Health Services