Organ and tissue donation by children with a heart condition

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Learn about organ and tissue donation by children with a heart condition.

Key points

  • Organ and tissue donation can save a life or improve its quality.
  • The heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, small bowel, stomach, corneas, heart valves, bone, and skin can all be donated.
  • Organ donors have brain injuries that cannot be treated with medicines or operations.

This page explains how organ and tissue donation is carried out.

Organ and tissue donation is a wonderful gift that can save a person's life or improve its quality. The heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, small bowel, stomach, corneas, heart valves, bone, and skin can all be donated. About 1,700 people in Ontario are currently in need of an organ transplant. More than 50 of these are under age 18. Some will die before a suitable donor is found. Transplantation has become a very successful treatment for people with organ or tissue failure, thanks to advances in surgery.

Organ donors — those who donate their organs for transplant — can be newborn babies, older babies, children, or adults who have become brain dead, most often by way of an injury. They may have been injured in a car crash or fall, or by drowning, or in some other accidental way. Their brain injuries cannot be treated with medicines or operations. While these donors are neurologically dead, their hearts and other organs can be supported for a short time with machines. It is necessary for organ donors to be on ventilators so that the heart continues to receive oxygen and beat, keeping the organs healthy and functioning.

Heart donation would not be an option for a child with a heart condition. However, if a heart defect was fully corrected early in life, donation of other organs might be possible if the subsequently healthy child/adult died of reasons unrelated to the heart condition, like injury. In contrast, brain death isn't a requirement for tissue donors. Children whose hearts have stopped can donate eyes and heart valves. Again, other types of tissue donation might be possible if a heart defect had been corrected early in life and the cause of death was unrelated to the heart condition.

Tissue/organ donation by a child is something that should be considered and discussed when the child is in good health, so they can make their wishes known. While it is difficult to discuss this issue, it is very worthwhile. Many families who have decided to donate their child's organs take comfort in the action because they feel that some good has come out of their child's experience. If a child is old enough to participate in the discussion about tissue/organ donation, they should. If there are religious issues, it's helpful to speak to a religious official. Most major religions support organ and tissue donation.

If a child dies, and the decision has been made beforehand as to whether donation is an acceptable option, next of kin give consent through a formal consent process. (Even in cases where adults sign consent forms, donation won't go ahead unless next of kin agree.) Tests are then done to ensure certain criteria are met. Families are well supported at this time. Someone from the hospital's organ donation team is available to answer questions and other experts (including nurses, doctors, chaplains, and social workers) provide support.

The process of removing the organs/tissue is carried out with complete respect and dignity. It is a sterile procedure like any other carried out by a surgeon with the support of nurses. It will not cause any disfigurement should a parent want an open casket at the child's funeral. No one will be able to tell that the child was an organ/tissue donor. Organ/tissue donation also won't delay funeral arrangements and there is no cost to the family for donation.

After the tissue/organ has been donated, some basic information is provided to the parents of the donor about the recipient, although the child is not identified by name or hospital. Knowing that their child helped another sick child can be very comforting. Many parents report that the organ donation was the one "bright light" to come out of their child's tragedy.

Last updated: May 19th 2010