Donating Organs

After my death, do whatever you like with my body. I mean it, anything; it’s no good to me any more. I’ll be gone and won’t ever be coming back. Use it to scare away the crows, offer it up as road kill to anything that happens to be passing, or see how many times it can be used as a crash test dummy before things start falling off.

Whatever happens to our consciousness at the moment of extinction – and I’m devastated to learn that it’s more than likely my spark of life will not continue to exist without the continued input from my body – our body remains solidly human and organic. It will, in time, decompose and become part of the earth again. I like the sound of that; it seems rather more poetic than so much else that’s suggested (mostly, I’m pained to report, by religions) in revelatory materials.

When my body is all that is left of my once-average soul (let’s agree to call my spark of consciousness that for the moment and move on; there’s a paucity of language when it comes to the sentient part of each of us that controls our body’s conscious movements), I want to know that it continues to mean something for as long as there’s a shell still in existence. To think that I’m able to contribute something even in grinning, decaying rigor mortis is a comforting thought; to be able to live on through scientific action is really rather fulfulling.

There are two main ways of contributing after your death, and I’m personally registered for both; they can fight it out amongst themselves, quite frankly, although the thought of scientists arguing over who deserves my slowly-rotting body does make me chuckle somewhat.

I’m primarily signed up as an organ donor, as the ability to extend someone’s life with an organ I don’t need any more is a privilege. Did you know, for example, that a single donor can potentially impact the lives of 58 people? Donating organs saves up to eight lives, depending on which organs are suitable for donation, and when you factor in eye and tissue donations, that brings it up to the magic figure of 58; quite humbling, when you think about it.

Medical science is improving all the time, and I sincerely hope it moves on within my lifetime to help me extend the years I have left on this planet. I don’t want to be immortal, by no stretch of the imagination, but to be able to see in the 22nd century with very little senility would be rather lovely. However, I digress; I’d started this paragraph intending to discuss what organs can actually be used for donation. It’s a surprisingly large number, including your kidneys, heart, lungs, liver, small bowel, and pancreas. As for your tissues, I’m rather stunned to learn that there’s so much else that can be given to people in need, including the eyes, heart valves, bone, skin, veins, and tendons.

There are strict criteria in place in the United Kingdom for the diagnosis of death, so we can be reassured that doctors aren’t going to just start rooting around until your spark of life is actually gone. To be clear, organs are never removed until the patient’s death has been confirmed in line with these criteria, and I hope that’s enough to calm anyone’s last vestiges of concern on that front. Doctors in the UK determine death in two ways, either through confirmation of brain stem death (which is diagnosed by a series of clinical tests performed twice by two doctors), or via circulatory death.

I’m also comforted to know that care given to me before death isn’t influenced in any way by the knowledge doctors might have about my decision to donate my organs. Medical professionals are compassionate, ethical human beings that I would, quite literally, trust with my life. I know I’ll be well cared for in case I need their help, but when I’m going, my general view is, “Help yourself.”

Teresa May, at the recent Conservative party conference, has announced a consultation on introducing an opt-out system for organ donation is to be held in England. Currently, the system is something of an absurd one, frankly; anyone who wants to donate their organs after death has to “opt in” through the donor card scheme. Why is this absurd? Because plenty of perfectly healthy cadavers are, as it were, going to waste because so many people just haven’t given any thought to what they would like to happen with their remains after death.

Proposals are for a shift to presumed consent, where it will be presumed an adult’s body can be used in transplants in the absence of express permission, will now be considered. Wales has already introduced an opt-out system (in 2015), while Scotland has said it will be following suit. It came after a government consultation found 82% of people were in favour, which is heartening; this makes me glad to see that so many people support such an enlightened scheme, as it could absolutely could support so many people in very genuine need.

I sincerely hope the consultation is a success and that times change; they absolutely need to on this.

As to the other form of help my body might be able to give people after I die is by it going to medical science. This is an intriguing area of science, as it enables medical training and research to be done by students, and I personally would feel a lot more comfortable with a doctor at some point in his career if I knew he’d had the opportunity to practice on real-life bodies; that’s where the best experience comes from, after all.

I’m registered with the London Anatomy Office, which is part of King’s College in London, and if they want any part of my body after I’m dead, they’re welcome to it, very welcome to it.

Gunther von Hagens is a German anatomist who made headlines by performing the first public autopsy in the UK (in 2002) for 120 years, which is quite an achievement in itself given the squeamishness of some people. As a result, I suspect a lot of people’s perspectives of what donating a body to medical science is like has been influenced by that image; now that’s all very well and good, but it’s far more complex than that, of course, and people need to dispel the myths that have grown up around medical science. I take great comfort from the fact that, if my body is felt in any way decent enough to be used, it can be helped to develop a greater understanding of a doctor’s capabilities, or even contribute towards a scientific approach of disease control.

You see, I’m an old romantic at heart.

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