Do Organ Donors Feel Pain?

Many people know little about organ donation.  It can be a touchy topic because it forces us to think in detail about our own mortality and to make practical decisions about what will happen to our bodies in the event of sudden death. Furthermore, discussions of organ donation are full of such bluntly grisly terms as “braindead” or “beating-heart cadaver,” and there is really no way of softening this language to make it more comfortable.

What many people don’t realize when they start considering organ donation is that the likelihood of becoming an organ donor is relatively slim.  People who die of natural causes are usually not able to donate because the organs must be living in order to be viable.  The donor’s heart must still be beating (hence the term “beating-heart cadaver”) for his or her organs to remain alive long enough to be harvested and transplanted into another patient.  This situation necessitates a distinction between different kinds of death – yet another uncomfortable idea, since it leads to questions about what really constitutes death and whether or not there may be any possibility, with the aid of modern medicine, of a “braindead” person recovering from that state and returning to life.

Lately there has also been growing concern about organ donation following the publication of some articles, like this one from the Wall Street Journal, which suggest that patients who are braindead might still be able to feel pain.  Some studies indicate that braindead patients from whom organs are being harvested sometimes exhibit possible signs of pain such as increased blood pressure and heart rate.  For this reason, many medical experts advocate for anesthetization of braindead patients from whom organs are being harvested.  But this is not yet the standard practice in the medical community.

Here’s the deal:  if you want to be a donor, it is still possible to donate organs safely and without fear of suffering, but you need to make sure your legal documents carefully and accurately describe your wishes.

If you want to be an organ donor, talk to your health care provider and a legal professional about what donor registration means for your rights and your treatment after braindeath.  If you do register in advance as a donor – for instance, by signing up on the back of your driver’s license or checking the appropriate boxes on your Advance Care Plan – you may not be guaranteed to receive anesthetic before your organs are harvested.

Three important legal documents control what happens to you and who is authorized to make medical decisions for you if you become unable to make those decisions for yourself.  These are the Health Care Power of Attorney, Living Will, and Advance Care Plan.  By reviewing these documents, confirming that they agree with each other, and ensuring that a trusted Health Care Agent fully understands your wishes regarding organ donation, you can rest  easy knowing that you will be treated exactly according to your wishes in the event that you cannot express those wishes yourself.  By understanding the ins and outs of the donation process and tailoring your documents accordingly, you can still make a life-saving contribution while ensuring that your body is treated exactly how you want it to be treated.

For more information and resources about organ donation, visit our Elder Law Insights blog or give us a call at (865) 951-2410.