How to Ship Organs for Transplant

When a patient's life is on the line, getting organs safely and quickly to their destination is of the utmost importance
ship organs
Grab these resources for this guide
Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network
OPTN Policies for Organ Transplants in the US
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We’ve talked about the fastest way to ship an item, but what happens when you need to deliver something within mere hours? Such is the case for shipping organs. Did you know that on average, 20 people die every day in the United States while waiting for a transplant? There are few situations where time is more precious than in the case of organ transplants. A successful transplant doesn’t just come down to a successful surgery. Organ transplantation also requires a complex logistics system, and we want to shed some light on the matter.

Shipping Organs vs. Transporting Organs

First thing’s first. When thinking about shipping organs, it’s important to keep in mind that they aren’t shipped as much as they are transported. There are companies that specialize in organ delivery between hospitals, and this is serious business. Some companies even have fleets of helicopters that can travel between hospital rooftops! More often than not, medical couriers part of the transplant team will personally accompany organs to the hospital where the transplant will take place. However, some organs are shipped commercially within the United States with a major carrier like FedEx, using their expedited services. Unfortunately, organs cannot be shipped internationally.

The Maximum Organ Preservation Times

Certain organs have shorter preservation times than others. An organ’s preservation time refers to the amount of time it can survive outside of a human body. Preservation times affects which patients receive transplants and where, because certain organs will not make it unless they are within the distance and “time radius” around the patient’s hospital. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) lists the following organs and their preservation times:

  • Heart and lung(s): 4-6 hours
  • Liver: 8-12 hours
  • Pancreas: 12-18 hours
  • Kidney: 24-36 hours

You will notice that the preservation times for hearts and lungs is much shorter than it is for kidneys. For this reason, heart transplant patients have a much more difficult time receiving transplants, since they need to match with a donor whose heart can be delivered and transplanted within just 4-6 hours.

Properly Packaging Organs for Transport

As is this case with shipping fragile items, preserving organs and protecting them from harm comes down to packaging them properly. After all, what’s more fragile than a human organ? You can use either a cooler, a commercial shipping box, or a mechanical preservation machine to transport organs. No matter which type of container you use, organs need to be preserved during transit. Therefore, you’ll need to package organs with dry ice, wet ice, and gel packs.


Coolers are most commonly used when accompanying an organ for transport, as long as they are properly cleaned and sanitized. Also, all labels from previous organ donations need to be removed.

Commercial Shipping Boxes

In order to ship organs, you must use brand new commercial shipping boxes. You can only use a box one time, and the OPTN mandates that each box must contain all of the following:

  • An inner insulated container at least 1.5 inches thick, or a heat-resistant container
  • Enough cooling material (gel packs, dry ice, and wet ice) within the inner container to protect the organ during normal transit conditions
  • A water-tight, leak-proof plastic liner inside the inner container to encase cooling material
  • An outer container of corrugated plastic or corrugated cardboard with at least 200 pounds burst strength, coated with a water resistant substance
  • A secure water-tight and leak-proof plastic liner between the outer and inner containers

Mechanical Preservation Machines

OPTN members can also use mechanical preservation machines. Like coolers, you can only reuse these machines after cleaning and sanitizing them properly, and you must remove all labels from previous organ donations.

Properly Labeling the Container or Box

The hospital staff from which an organ is being transported is responsible for properly labeling the organ and including all of the necessary documentation. The standard-issue OPTN External Label must be attached to the exterior of the container housing the organ(s). According to the OPTN, this label must include all of the following information:

  • The donor’s ID
  • The sender’s name and telephone number
  • Donor’s blood type, as well as subtype (if used for allocation)
  • A description of the specific contents of the box
  • The Organ Center’s telephone number

For the most comprehensive information on logistics for organ transplants, read the OPTN’s Policies PDF. Packaging, labeling, shipping, and storage policies begins on page 256.

Want to Become an Organ Donor?

On a more humanitarian side note, becoming an organ donor means that you may save somebody’s life someday! If you’re interested in becoming an organ donor, all you need to do is register online for free.

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