Learn more about the process of organ and tissue donation in New Zealand
People of all ages can be considered for donation. At the time of your death, your age and medical condition will determine the organs and tissues that can be donated.
Very few medical conditions will prevent a person from being able to donate any organs or tissues. For example, a person with severe asthma may not be able to donate lungs for transplantation, but may be able to donate their heart, liver, kidneys and eyes.
Organ donation is only possible when a person is on a ventilator (breathing machine) in an intensive care unit, usually with non-survivable brain damage. Organs will need to be removed by the surgical teams within a few hours. This is a respectful process, carried out with care, using normal operating procedures.
People who die in hospital, in a hospice or at home can be considered for tissue donation (eyes, heart valves and skin) up to 48 hours following death.
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In New Zealand, you can choose to donate your heart, lungs, pancreas, liver and kidneys. The donation of these organs will extend and save some peoples’ lives, while greatly improving the quality of life for others.
Tissue transplants include eye tissue (corneas and sclera) to restore sight or repair eyes and heart valves which are often used to save the lives of babies and young children. Donated skin is the preferred dressing for people with severe burns.
Through the donation of both organs and tissues, one donor can transform the lives of up to ten recipients.
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Organ donation is only possible when a person is on a ventilator (breathing machine) in an intensive care unit (ICU), usually with severe brain damage. Less than 1% of all deaths happen this way.
However, when a person is admitted to an Intensive Care Unit with a severe brain injury, it will most commonly be from bleeding in the brain or trauma. The patient will have his/her breathing supported by a ventilator while everything possible is being done to save his/her life. Sometimes, the damage to the brain is so severe that the brain swells and cuts off its own blood supply. This is known as brain death. When the doctors suspect that the patient's brain has died, they carry out brain death assessments.
1. Brain Death Assessment
Two separate sets of brain death assessments are carried out by two different doctors to confirm that the patient’s brain has died. The time when the second brain death assessment has been completed is the time of death of that person. This is the time that will be recorded on the death certificate.
2. Discussion about donation
Some time after the family has been told that their loved one has died, the intensive care doctor will discuss donation with the family. After the family has been given information about organ and tissue donation and what is involved, they will be given time to make a decision. If the family agrees to donation, a written consent form will be obtained for the organs and tissues they are comfortable with donating.
3. Donor co-ordination
Following a family’s agreement to donation, the donor co-ordinator for Organ Donation New Zealand is contacted. The donor co-ordinator obtains the medical information about the patient who is donating, liaises with the transplant teams and organises the organ retrieval operation.
4. Organ donation operation
The surgical teams travel to the hospital where the patient is being cared for. The patient is transferred to the operating room while the ventilator (breathing machine) continues to supply oxygen to the organs until they are surgically removed. The operation is carried out as it would be for any other surgical operation, including the stitching and dressing of the incision(s) at the end of the operation.
5. After the donation
The family may spend time with their loved one, if they wish, following the donation. Organ and tissue donation will not interfere with the funeral arrangements, including an open coffin, or having their loved one at home.
The health professionals involved in the donation operation ensure that the patient is treated with care and respect at all times.
6. Support for donor families
The donor co-ordinator provides information and support to the family of the donor and will often meet the family prior to the donation.
The family receives a letter of thanks that includes general information about the recipients - for example - ‘the heart was transplanted to a man in his forties and the liver recipient is a woman in her twenties’.
The family also receives a booklet providing information about brain death, organ donation, transplantation and the grief process. Communication is continued for many months or years for some families.
Donor families can contact the donor co-ordinator at any time to find out the progress of the recipients.
For some families, this is not something they choose to do, but for others it is important and they request this information for many years after the death of their loved one. Although confidentiality is maintained, recipients are able to write an anonymous letter of thanks to the donor family. These letters are forwarded through Organ Donation New Zealand to the family of the donor, if they wish to receive them. Donor families are also able to write to recipients and these letters are handled in the same way.
The follow-up for donor families has increased over the years. We are aware that there will be families who generously donated in the past but received little or no acknowledgement or information. If you would like to receive information and support now or at any time in the future, please contact us.
Each year in April or May, a service is held in Auckland in recognition of those who have donated organs and given the gift of life to others. A second service is also held on alternate years in Wellington and Christchurch. Donor families, recipients and their families, as well as health professionals are invited to attend these services.
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Following your death, a health professional will ask your family if they know whether you wanted to be a donor or not. This is why it’s important to have a conversation with them about donation.
Your family will be asked for their consent to donate your organs and tissues, so make sure you tell them what organs or tissues you would want to donate.
In our experience, families very rarely overrule the wishes of their deceased family member, especially when their wishes are known.
When you apply for, or renew, your driver's licence, you can indicate if you would like to be a donor and have this printed on your licence. However this is not an official organ donation register, you still need to have a conversation with your family about your wishes.
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Visit the Frequently Asked Questions page for more answers to commonly asked questions about donation.