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Body of Evidence

Myths, questions and one urban legend about organ donation

By Kelly Luker

I can't donate--I'm too old, I'm a smoker, I have diabetes/AIDS/cancer, etc.
Actually, you'd be surprised. It's not only the "Big Four" (heart, lungs, liver and kidney) that are in demand, but also the rest of the body: intestines, skin, bones, eyeballs, corneas, ligaments, muscle membranes and cartilage, etc. A fair amount of the corpus may escape the ravages of time and disease, offering possibilities to someone else. With all due respect, think of your body as a giant yard sale, and let the experts do the picking and choosing. If all else fails, consider willing your body to a medical teaching school.

I'm afraid they'll pronounce me prematurely dead in order to get at my organs.
For crying out loud, lay off the boob tube and National Enquirer, OK? According to the Northern California Transplant Bank, "Transplant physicians do not participate in the decisions regarding potential donors until after death is pronounced." In other words, conflict of interest is at a minimum, so nobody is going to swipe your eyeballs while you're not looking.

I don't want to be an organ donor because I want an open casket service when I die.
While there's little spiritual hope for such terminal vanity, there is, fortunately, a practical solution. The medical experts can take enough of your no-longer-needed corpse to save the lives of 50 people--think about that for a moment--and morticians will still leave you looking pretty for the wake.

I have an organ donor card on my driver's license. That's it, right?
Wrong. If your closest family doesn't know your wishes, chances are they don't want to think about it during your final moments on life support. Talk to them. Now.

What's the best organ-related urban legend?
A young man travels to the Orient on business and meets a gorgeous woman who persuades him to follow her home to spend the night. He wakes up the next morning in a tub of ice, a perfect incision on his lower abdomen. His kidney (or spleen or pancreas) has been surgically removed to join the thousands of other kidneys (or spleens or pancreases) in the thriving black market trade for human organs. No, I swear! It happened to a friend of a friend!

For more information about organ donation, call 1-800-55DONOR. For more information about Willed Body Programs, call Stanford University School of Medicine 415/723-2404 or UCSF Department of Anatomy 415/476-1981. For more urban legends, check out two great collections: The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981) and The Choking Doberman (1985), both authored by Jan Harold Brunvand and published by Norton.

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From the Sept. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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