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Organ donation: What is brain death?

Your decision to donate organs can save life of a person and many families.

Written by Editorial Team |Updated : August 12, 2015 10:16 AM IST

Recently, there was a news on how 5 brain-dead patients saved lives of 23 patients by donating their organs. While this might not be a very big deal for you, organ donation could be a lifesaver for lakhs and millions of people suffering from various diseases. And if you think (like most people) that organs can be donated whenever and however after death, you are WRONG! And brain-dead doesn't mean that the person is in coma or can get back to his/her normal routine. But his/her organs can provide a new ray of hope for many people. Here's what Sunayana Singh, Chief Executive Officer, ORGAN (Organ Receiving & Giving Awareness Network) has to say about organ donation and brain death.

Before we know how brain-death is related to organ donation, you need to know what is organ donation. It is the process of retrieving or procuring an organ from a live or deceased person known as a donor. The process of recovering organs is called retrieving or harvesting. This organ is transplanted into the recipient who is in need of that organ.

There are two types of organ donation

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1. Live donation: It is the retrieval or an organ from a healthy and living person and transplanting it into another person. This is mostly done in the case of a liver or a kidney (because the liver can grow back to its normal size, and a donor can survive on one kidney). In India this is only allowed from a near relative to another. People who are not related cannot donate to each other without special permission from an appropriate authority. But, most Indians are reluctant to donate their organs. Is this the reason?

2. Deceased or cadaver donation: It means a person who has been declared brain-dead by a team of authorized doctors at a hospital can donate his/her organs. A person is said to be brain-dead when there is an irreversible loss of consciousness, absence of brain stem reflexes and no spontaneous respiration. Here's what real people tell you how organ transplants changed their lives: Watch NOW!

What is brain death?

A brain death or brain stem death results from a severe irreversible injury to the brain or haemorrhage which causes all the brain activity to stop. All areas of the brain are damaged and no longer function, due to which a person cannot sustain his/her own life.

For example, if someone met with an accident and has a head injury, he will be put on life support and every attempt will be made to save his life. But it s possible that the head injury is so severe, that eventually the entire brain ceases to function. This is when the person is declared brain death by the hospital. But since he/she is on life support and still breathing (artificially), circulation to vital organs is maintained (although only for a stipulated time). This means that the organs are still alive and functioning at the time of a brain death and can be surgically removed for organ donation. Hence, it is very important to understand that organ donation in case of brain death can take place only for a short period of as after some time all the organs will fail.

To know in detail about brain death, watch this video.

How it brain death related to organ donation?

If you are wondering whether a brain dead person can get back to normal, you might know that brain death means the person has absolutely no chance of recovering. However, your organs are still alive because they have been kept alive through artificial measures. This means if a person dies at home or anywhere else, and their heart stops beating, they cannot donate their vital organs. The organs of a person who has died a cardiac death (as opposed to brain death) will die within minutes the heart stops beating. But it is possible to donate your corneas and tissues such as bones, skin, veins, blood stem cells, blood and platelets, tendons, ligaments, heart valves, cartilage and even your body, in case of cardiac death.

While the incidence of brain death is obviously less common than cardiac death, it is important to remember that only if everyone is aware about when and how they can donate organs, will donations actually happen in hospitals. It has been seen in umpteen situations that relatives are hesitant and unwilling to donate the organs of their loved ones who have been declared brain dead. Here are the rules and regulation you need to know about organ donation.

Statistics you need to know

The total number of brain deaths due to accidents is nearly 1.5 lakhs annually. Other causes of brain death would potentially add many more numbers. There is a need of 2 lakh kidneys, 50,000 hearts and 50,000 livers for transplantation every year. Even if 5-10% of all brain deaths are retrieved properly for organ donation, there would be no requirement for a living person to donate organs. One person dies of kidney failure every 5 minutes. This amounts to roughly 290 deaths every day due to kidney failure. These numbers suggest that with adequate systems in place, people succumbing to accident-prone injuries could donate to those waiting.

What happens once brain death is declared?

Organ donations require prior consent from the potential donor or the donor s family. In India, according to the Transplantation of Human Organs Act 1994, the next of kin of the patient will decide whether to donate their organs. Organs from deceased donors are matched with different recipients blood group and size, offered to the first patient on the waiting list, and if suitable, transplanted.

In this situation, the transplant coordinator or counsellor of the hospital will make the family aware of their patient s condition and give them the option of donating organs and tissues. The family may or may not agree and can, till the last minute before retrieval, change their mind about donating. It has been noted that a lot of families, even in the face of devastating loss, agree to organ donation to save the lives of others. For them, it is the only good thing that could come out of the death of a loved one. For this reason alone, it is everyone s absolute right to be asked if they want to donate.

If you feel like helping others and want to get register for donating organs, here is a quick way to get yourself register and claim a donor card as well. Donate organs, save lives.

Image Source: Shutterstock

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