When we become sick, we expect the doctor to make us well. But when organs or other tissues in the body become too sick or damaged to work correctly, sometimes the only way to fix the problem is to replace the failing organ. The surgery to do this is called organ transplant surgery.
For people who are sick, organ failure can be a gradual process as the organ becomes weaker and must work harder to function. Sometimes organs are damaged by chemicals we chose to place in our bodies such as alcohol which can cause permanent damage to the liver, or cigarette smoke which can damage the lungs. In other cases, organs are damaged suddenly by something traumatic like a car accident.
When doctors recognize that a replacement organ is needed, they place the name of the patient on an organ donor list. The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) maintains the OPTN/UNOS national transplant waiting list. Patients who need a new organ must get their names on the list in order to be considered for a transplant. At the present time, almost 110,000 people are on the list waiting for organs to become available.
Getting on the list requires a referral from a doctor who states that you need a transplant. It also means details about your condition will be included in your listing. Finding a matching organ is not a simple matter of waiting for the next kidney or heart to become available. The immune system, which helps protect the body from germs, bacteria, and other foreign substances that can make us sick, also tries to protect us from organs and tissues that it does not recognize. So part of the process of organ transplantation is matching the organ donor with the organ recipient to provide the best possible chance that the body will not reject the new organ. If an organ is rejected, the organ will not work correctly in its new body and the recipient will become sick again. Patients who receive organ transplants usually have to take medications for the rest of their lives to reduce the chances that the organ will be rejected.
Finding a matching organ is similar to giving a matching blood type for a transfusion.