What to Know About Becoming a Kidney Transplant Donor

Donating a kidney is one of the kindest things you can do for someone. While a kidney transplant may not last a lifetime, it can give someone anywhere from 12-15 years of healthy life—and relief from the complications of end-stage renal disease (ESRD). Some people may need multiple transplants during their life, depending on age and health.

A kidney donation is when a person with 2 healthy, functioning kidneys undergoes surgery to give 1 kidney to a person with late or end stage renal disease. You may already know that you can register to be an organ donor and your organs, eyes and skin can save up to 8 lives after you pass away. You can also choose to become a living donor and give 1 of your kidneys to someone in need, like a friend or relative. People who wish to become living kidney transplant donors need testing beforehand to check compatibility and health, transplant surgery and a brief recovery period. 

What do the kidneys do?

The kidneys are bean-shaped organs located on either side of your spine, just below your rib cage.  How many kidneys does a person have? Most people are born with 2 kidneys. Healthy kidneys work to filter waste, toxins and excess fluid from your blood to help keep you healthy. Your kidneys also perform other functions that help maintain your overall health, including releasing certain hormones, controlling sodium and fluid levels, stimulating production of red blood cells and creating vitamin D. Your body needs kidney function to survive. After kidney failure, dialysis and medication or a kidney transplant is needed to replace normal kidney function. 

Can you live with one kidney?

Fortunately, a person really only needs 1 functioning kidney to lead a healthy life.  During a living kidney transplant surgery, 1 healthy kidney is removed from the donor to be placed in the transplant recipient—leaving 1 healthy kidney intact. That single kidney can work to filter blood and perform all its other functions to help keep the donor healthy over a lifetime. 

Insurance and kidney donation

Your pre-op and surgical expenses will probably be covered by the insurance of the person receiving your kidney. You may be responsible for travel expenses, and post-surgical treatment may rely on your own insurance.

Preparing to donate a kidney

When you decide to become a donor, you’ll go through several consultations and exams. This is to make sure that you’re a good kidney transplant donor match, and to help ensure the best possible outcomes for you and the kidney transplant recipient. There are several kidney donor requirements that a potential donor must meet, including tissue matching, good overall health and optimal kidney function. To ensure that you meet these kidney donor requirements, your pre-surgery work may include:

  • Blood, urine, and tissue tests—to confirm if you’re a match, as well as screen for health problems that might complicate a transplant
  • An X-ray and EKG—to make sure that your heart and lungs are in good condition
  • A medical history review and a physical—to make sure you’re healthy enough for surgery and to donate a kidney
  • A conversation with a psychologist—to make sure you’re completely comfortable

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE DONATING A KIDNEY

Want to become a living kidney donor? See more considerations to factor into your decision.

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Kidney transplant surgery

For the transplant surgery, you’ll receive a general anesthetic. That means that you’ll be asleep and won’t feel anything during the surgery. There are two types of surgery for kidney transplant donors. Both surgeries take about 3–4 hours.

  • Laparoscopic surgery—uses cameras and small tools to remove your kidney. You will have three small incisions in your belly, and may spend 2–3 days in the hospital afterwards.
  • Open surgery—gives the surgical team easier access to your kidney. It will leave a 5–7 inch scar, and you may spend 3–4 days in the hospital recovering.

Recovering from kidney donation

After surgery, you may experience some pain. You’ll likely be prescribed pain relief medications to help manage discomfort. Because of the potential for damage to your remaining kidney, the only over-the-counter pain relief medication you should use is Tylenol®. Your doctor will give you exact instructions to follow.

You’ll probably also notice some itching as the scars heal. Be very gentle with yourself for about a month. Your doctor will probably want you up and moving around shortly after the surgery, though you should probably avoid heavy lifting for 4–6 weeks. It may take 6–8 weeks before you fully recover.

Life after kidney donation

Kidney donation doesn’t seem to alter life expectancy at all. As long as you’re healthy, you shouldn't need to make any changes to your diet. You can still have a full, productive life with only 1 kidney. You may be advised to avoid contact sports where your remaining kidney is at risk of injury. If you do want to pursue contact sports, talk to your doctor. 

You may be at risk for the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • Proteinuria
  • Decreased kidney function

Donating a kidney does not seem to be a risk factor in developing kidney disease. Yearly checkups that include calculating GFR can help make sure that your long-term health stays on track. 

Studies show that most kidney donors say that if they had the choice to go back in time, they would choose to donate again. It is completely normal though to experience some mixed emotions after the transplant, especially if the donation outcome is disappointing. If you become a kidney donor and experience deep emotions after surgery, be sure to talk through these feelings and how to handle them with your doctor. They may recommend a therapist or counselor for you to talk to. 

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