How Organ Donation Works

Organ Donation Organizations

Sisters Carol and Tracey Playfair recover together after surgery. Tracey donated a kidney to save Carol's life.
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Organ donation is a very complicated and well-coordinated process. At any given moment, organs become available, and a series of individuals, groups and organizations must swing into action. Organs cannot be stored, and most die within 4 to 24 hours of being removed from the human body. In order to maintain a streamlined, efficient and lawful process, several nonprofit entities have been established to facilitate organ donation.

Organ Procurement Organizations (OPOs) are federally designated, nonprofit local entities throughout the United States. They're responsible for organ donor awareness, donor recruitment and evaluation, organ removal and its subsequent transportation. Each state has its own OPO, often with a central location as well as satellite offices throughout the state. When a patient dies, hospitals are required to contact the local OPO. A representative determines whether the person is registered as an organ donor and if his or her organs can be used. If consent is given -- either by the patient prior to death or by the next of kin after the patient's death -- the OPO collects the donor's relevant medical history and arranges to have the organ or organs removed from the body in the operating room, packaged and shipped to the receiving hospital.


The United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) is responsible for placing donated organs as well as maintaining the national waiting lists for them. It's based in Richmond, Va., and is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. On an average day, organ placement specialists at UNOS find 15 recipients for organs, match 12 organ donors with local OPOs and take 350 phone calls relating to organ donation and transplantation logistics.

In 1984, the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), a unified transplant network, was established. UNOS is responsible for administering the OPTN. The OPTN collects organ donation and transplantation data, drafts organ transplant policies and maintains a national computer network that matches donors with recipients. The OPTN maintains organ waiting lists, determines who has priority on the lists in each individual case and contacts the appropriate transplant hospitals.

The Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR) is a statistical database for organ transplant information. The SRTR maintains data on every facet of the donation and transplantation process that it collects from hospitals, the OPTN and local OPOs. This information is used by researchers, analysts, doctors and policy-makers to determine priorities and possible improvements in the organ donation process. The database is maintained by the Arbor Research Collaborative for Health in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Continue reading to find out the exact route your donated organ will take once it's removed from your body.