Ever wondered about donating an organ or other tissue?

Patricia Hamill, our eye donation and retrieval co-ordinator, recently gave Twitter interviews about eye tissue donation. If you missed it here is her interview in full.

What does your job involve?

My role is to raise the profile of eye donation and transplantation in Merseyside. I promote and drive eye donations for transplantation, research, teaching and training within the hospital trust. A large part of my role is to provide information about tissue donation to bereaved families in order to offer them the opportunity to consider the gift of donation.  

What is tissue donation and what tissue can be donated?

Most people are aware that hundreds of lives are saved every year by donated organs such as hearts and kidneys. But what they may not realise is that donated tissues can dramatically improve the quality of life for others and even save lives. More than 50 people can be helped by the donations of one person which might include:

  • Eyes – Corneas can be transplanted into patients suffering from severe eye disease or injury. It can help to restore their sight and can dramatically improve their quality of life. Sometimes the sclera - the white outer coat of the eye - is also transplanted during reconstructive eye surgery. It can help to rebuild an eye damaged through trauma or disease.
  • Heart valves – Heart valves can be transplanted to save the lives of patients, including young children born with heart defects and adults suffering from diseased or damaged heart valves.
  • Skin – Skin can help save the lives of severely burned victims. It can be used as a natural dressing helping to treat serious burns. The skin graft helps to reduce pain and infection, and prepare the underlying tissue for later cosmetic grafting.
  • Bone – Bone is vitally important for grafts that are used in operations aimed at reducing patients’ pain, and improving or restoring their mobility. This is important for people receiving artificial joint replacements, or for replacing bone that has been removed due to illness or injury.
  • Tendons - Tendons can be used to restore mobility in patients with badly damaged knee joints, usually following sports injuries.

Can anyone donate tissue?Gold medal-winning Paralympic swimmer, Stephanie Slater MBE, was a recipient of a donated cornea at St Paul’s Eye Unit. She urges everyone to join the organ donor register.

Almost anyone can be considered for tissue donation. For some tissues there are no age restrictions and few contra-indications.

Certain medical conditions mean that eye donation for transplantation isn’t always possible, however, donation for research might still be feasible. In cases where transplantation is not an option the deceased person’s next of kin will be asked if they would like to consent to eye donation from their relative for research purposes. All donated tissues used for research are treated with dignity and respect.

*Pictured: Gold medal-winning Paralympic swimmer, Stephanie Slater MBE, was a recipient of a donated cornea at St Paul’s Eye Unit. Standing alongside her surgeon, Mr Mark Batterbury, she urges everyone to join the organ donor register.

If donated eyes are not suitable for transplantation they can be used for research, and what is the purpose of that research?

There are a number of diseases which damage the eye’s delicate tissues and cause sight loss. Research is needed if treatments are to be found for these conditions, which is where donations come in. The University of Liverpool Research Eye Bank supports the work that will help lead to significant advances in our understanding and treatment of these sight threatening diseases, and may improve the quality of life for many people. Such research, however, is dependent upon the availability of donated tissue and cannot take place without the generosity of eye donation, so please consider registering as an eye donor.

Are there any age restrictions for tissue donation?

There are no age restrictions for skin and bone donations. Heart valves and tendons can be donated up to the age of 60. Eyes can be donated up to the age of 86 or 96 if there has been no previous surgery.

How long after death can tissues be donated?

For most tissue, donation can occur up to 48 hours after death. The exception is eyes where there is a 24 hour time limit.

Does tissue donation have any cultural and religious implications?

This depends on the individual family. All the UK’s major religions support the principles of donation and transplantation and accept that donation is an individual choice.

Will tissue donation affect funeral arrangements?

No, funeral arrangements are not affected by donation. The work of the pathologist and HM Coroners are not interrupted or compromised by the donation process.

Does donation prevent us viewing our loved one after death?

No, it doesn’t. Throughout the donation process the donor is treated with dignity and respect, and the specialist team will ensure that the donor maintains a natural appearance after donation.

Can we choose which tissues to donate?

Yes, only those tissues for which you have given permission will be donated. You can make or change your choice on the NHS organ donation website.

After donation does the donor’s family receive any information?

Yes, with permission the NHS Blood and Transplant specialist nurse will write a thank you letter to the donor family.

I should emphasise that if you choose to donate tissue then discussing your wishes with your family, joining the organ donor register and carrying a donor card are really important steps to take. When the time comes it will make it easier for hospital staff to raise the subject of donation with your family.



*Main eye image: © David Llenhard