Brake Family Liaison Officer Handbook: Organ and tissue donation

Many police officers shy away from mentioning organ or tissue donation to families. This is for several obvious reasons:

  • Officers are not experts in the area - they aren't health professionals
  • Organ donation is nothing to do with police procedures
  • Officers are concerned about offending families at a terrible time, some families will not want to consider donation, and may be angry if it is raised
  • Officers imagine that someone else would raise the possibility of donation if it is possible, or officers presume that donation is not possible, because the death happened by the roadside rather than in hospital, and injuries were very severe.    

There are, however, some very important reasons why it is helpful for officers to have some knowledge of organ and tissue donation and that officers are able to broach the subject with families. Some police officers regularly do this following a death on the road, and find that this provides a very useful service to some families that these families would not otherwise receive. The quote below, and further information below, explains why.    

A victim's perspective

"We knew, when we thought about it afterwards, that our daughter had always wanted to be a donor if she died, but at the time we were told about her death it was the last thing on our minds. When we finally asked about it, we were told by our police contact that it wouldn't have been possible anyway, because she died at the scene of the crash. However, we have now found out that it would have been possible to donate tissue and other parts. We are really sad that we weren't given this opportunity, and that our police officer was misinformed (which didn't give us confidence in his knowledge in other areas), and that, ultimately, we didn't get the opportunity to respect our daughter's wishes and potentially save someone's life, or their eyesight, or their skin."   Mother bereaved by a road crash.   

The donation myth

It is not true that donation can only take place if someone dies while on a life support machine in hospital. In most cases, it is possible to donate major organs only if someone dies in this way, as organs such as the heart and lungs deteriorate very rapidly. However, if someone dies at the scene, or in an accident and emergency department after arrival in hospital, it is often possible to donate other body parts. These parts include corneas, skin, and bones.   

Corneas can save eyesight, and skin and bone can save the lives and improve the quality of life of seriously injured burns victims, cancer victims, and many others.    

Donation of these body parts can take place up to 24 hours after someone dies, and sometimes longer.

Information and opportunity brings comfort

While some families do not want to consider donation, or their loved one who died objected to donation, many other families take enormous comfort from knowing that their loved one's death saved someone else's life. Families who are not given the opportunity to consider donation can feel angry and excluded and disrespected.   

What can a police officer do?

If a death occurs at the roadside or shortly after arrival in hospital?

A police officer can:

  1. Raise the topic with the family towards the end of the first meeting. It is not a police officer's job to explain whether donation is going to be possible or not. But it is possible for a police officer to show the family the relevant page in the Brake bereavement guide (familiarise yourself with this beforehand in the What happens now? section) and to tell the family they can talk to a health professional if they want to find out if donation is possible. A police officer can make a judgment at the time about who it may be best to address this point to. It may be the whole family, or it may be one family member who is most calm at this time.    
  2. Make a phone call for a family that wants to find out if organ or tissue donation is going to be possible. In England and Wales there is a pager number that can be rung (and then a health professional calls you back). This number is 07659 180773 and should be called within 8 hours of a death, although you can still call if a death happened up to 24 hours ago. This number is also printed in the English and Welsh version of the Brake bereavement guide in the 'What happens now?' section.   
  3. In Scotland, there is currently no central number to call. Families must ring up their local main hospital and ask to speak to the transplant and tissue coordinator. It can be very difficult for a newly bereaved family to do this, as they may have to battle through a hospital switchboard. This is a task that a police officer, or someone else on behalf of the family, can easily do for the family, with their permission.    

If a death occurs in hospital, after a period on a life support machine?
In this case, it is probable that hospital staff will raise the issue of donation with the family. However, if this doesn't happen, it is possible for a police officer, or someone else acting on behalf of the family, to discuss options with medical staff, with the family's permission.    

What is the law on donation?

It is possible for someone to express a wish before their death that they would like organ or tissue to be donated. This wish can be expressed in the following ways:   

  • By registering on the UK Transplant register (which you can do online)
  • By holding a donor card
  • By telling someone   

It is the job of transplant professionals to try to respect this wish.    

However, even if someone had expressed this wish, medical staff will still want to talk to the next of kin or nearest relative, as medical staff would prefer to transplant with the support of the family, and may also need information regarding the health and medical history of the person who has died.    

If someone did not express a wish for their organs or tissue to be donation, then permission is required from the next of kin and medical staff must consult with the next of kin.    

What if a family is likely to have faith objections to organ or tissue donation?

Different religions have different views on organ or tissue donation. However, it is not the job of a police officer to presume that, for example, someone of a particular skin colour or dress practises a particular religion, or that they practise it in a particular way. It may not be possible to identify these things in a first meeting. Therefore, it is still usually appropriate to inform the family about their options, including the possibility of finding out if organ or tissue donation is possible.

I am worried that families will get angry if I raise the issue of transplantation.

You are not proposing that families consider donation. You are merely explaining that the bereavement guide includes information about what to do if they want to find out if donation is possible. If you have had the experience of a family getting angry, you may need to consider more carefully your word choice, or accept that anger is a normal part of the traumatic grieving process and the family is not angry at you, but angry at the whole situation. You should also weigh up a family's anger against the feelings of other families if you exclude them from receiving this important information that could bring them comfort.     

For more information go to:

NHS organ donation

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