The Facts about Kidney Donation
Let’s face it: The thought of donating a kidney is scary. It’s a surgical procedure. It hurts and there are risks. But there are reasonable fears based on reality and unreasonable fears that are based on total myths.
Before anyone even considers donating a kidney, it’s important to understand the answers to some basic questions:
What is the need?
The National Kidney Foundation estimates that about 350,000 people in the U.S. alone have end-stage renal disease—the term for kidney failure that cannot be reversed. That’s 350,000 people who will die without regular dialysis. What’s more, close to 70,000 people die of kidney failure every year.
How does transplantation work for the recipient?
In basic terms, transplantation involves removing a working kidney from a donor (living or deceased) and implanting it into the patient. The working kidney is connected to the artery and vein that carried the blood to and from one of the patient’s non-working kidneys. It is also connected to the ureter, which carries waste products from the kidney to the bladder.
Interestingly, in most cases the transplant recipients’ non-functional kidneys are not removed.
Assuming the procedure is a success and after a period of time that can vary for a number of reasons, the transplanted kidney begins to function and patient can be weaned off of dialysis. The recipient will need to take anti-rejection medication and will obviously be closely monitored by physicians to ensure continued health, but many transplant recipients return to normal life with surprisingly few permanent limitations.
In short, transplantation is more than just a gift of life, it is a gift of a full, normal, healthy life.
How does transplantation work for a living donor?
The long-term health effects of donating a kidney are usually negligible. There is no link to substantially shortened life span or decreased quality of life over time. After recovering from the procedure itself, kidney donors can return to work in any occupation and can continue to exercise and play sports (although aggressive contact sports that might risk damage to the remaining kidney are not advised). Kidney donation does not affect a woman’s ability to become pregnant or deliver a healthy baby.
The surgical procedure to remove the kidney is simple when compared to the actual transplantation to the recipient. The procedure is generally performed laparoscopically, which means only a few small incisions are made in the abdomen. The largest incision (to allow for the removal of the kidney itself) is generally 3-4” and leaves only a small scar.
What is the recovery time for a living donor?
Most living donors are discharged from the hospital within a day or two. Upon returning home, many donors report feeling tired for the first couple of weeks and may need frequent naps. Between naps, however, donors are encouraged to be active – avoiding heavy lifting, of course.
Kidney donors are generally able to return to work in two or three weeks, possibly a bit longer if their work involves strenuous physical activity.
How much does being a living donor cost?
All medical costs are paid by the transplant recipient’s insurance or sponsoring program. There are no out-of-pocket medical expenses for the donor. Depending upon the recipient’s insurance policy or benefits provided by the donor’s employer, there may be compensation for wages, travel costs, etc. as well.
What kind of pressure is involved in the donation process?
None. Zero. Zilch. That’s right. No pressure at all.
This is one of the biggest myths that keeps people from being tested to determine if they are a match. Folks are afraid that they will run into pressure at every turn: from the doctors and from the potential recipient.
The truth is that if you choose to have yourself tested as a potential donor, this fact is kept completely confidential. No one, including the potential recipient, will be given your name or notified that you have been tested. If the blood test indicates a match, you will be asked if you want to move forward with a tissue type test. You can back out at this point with no shame and no pressure. And even if your tissue type test shows a perfect match, you can still decide not to move forward. No one will share your decision with the recipient and no one will pressure you to go through with a donation.
Isn’t there a waiting list for folks who need kidneys?
Yes, and it’s a long one. Unfortunately, for younger, otherwise healthy folks the wait can last years and years, and there’s no guarantee a donor will be found. Also, in most cases those kidneys come from cadavers. While kidneys from deceased donors can and do save lives, the likelihood of the kidney functioning normally, and of the transplant recipient returning to full health, is significantly lower than with a living donor. The good news is that if someone volunteers to donate a kidney, the process can move much more quickly.