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Tissue donation: how to donate tissue after death

Woman signing a medical form

You will have heard of organ donation, but what you may not realise is that tissue donation is also a vital part of after-death donation that saves thousands of lives across the UK each year.

The term ‘tissue’ covers things such as bone, skin, heart valves and tendons. Whereas criteria can be quite limiting for organ donation, most tissue can be donated by people of any age, and very few medical conditions will prevent donation.

One tissue donor can save or improve up to 50 lives. Tissue can be donated up to 24 hours after death, and sometimes 48 hours after. The amazing thing about tissue is that, unlike organs, it can be stored for a long time before use. Some tissues, such as corneas from the eyes, can be stored for up to a year. Others, like heart valves, can be stored for up to 10 years.

Tissue donations improve and save lives in many ways. For example, skin tissue can be used as skin grafts for patients with severe burns. Corneas can cure corneal blindness, allowing a patient to see again. Tendons can help people recover from injury and walk again, and heart valves can save the lives of those with severe cardiovascular problems.

How do I donate?

Donating is very simple. You can register your wish to donate on the official NHS Blood and Transplant website. The form takes less than two minutes to complete.

This form covers both organ and tissue donation, but you can select what you would be willing to donate after death. So if you would rather not donate, for example, your heart, you can select everything except the heart.

Once you have signed the organ and tissue register it is important to tell your family about your wishes, so that they know what you would want to happen and any concerns they might have can be addressed. After your death, however, your family will have no legal right to overrule your decision, if you sign the register or make your wishes known in a will.

If you have signed up to be a donor, your tissue may be taken after you pass away and stored in a state-of-the-art tissue bank. Here the tissues are carefully examined and tested to ensure they are suitable for donation.

Does my religion allow tissue donation?

Some orthodox religions may not allow organ and tissue donation. However, many religious communities now recognise that organ and tissue donation are a vital part of saving lives.

Traditionally Catholicism frowned upon organ donation, but the practice is now widely accepted as a charitable act. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity some religious leaders are opposed to heart donations in particular, because they believe that the heart is closely linked to the soul. Most other religions and sects have now come to accept organ and tissue donation as a good deed.

The best thing to do, if you are unsure about your particular religious sect’s teachings, is to discuss the matter directly with your religious leader. They should be able to advise you as to what is permitted and help you come to a decision that is right for you.

To find out more about tissue donation and how it works, visit the NHS Blood and Transplant website. To register as a donor, complete the online form to make your wishes known.

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