What you should know about living kidney donation

Dr. Yolanda Becker with a kidney transplant patient

About 95,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a kidney transplant. Getting an organ from a living donor offers the best chance at a healthy life for those waiting for a new kidney. Approximately 6,000 people a year choose to donate one of their kidneys — sometimes to a family member and sometimes to a total stranger. To learn more about living kidney donation, we talked with Yolanda Becker, MD, director of the University of Chicago Medicine Kidney and Pancreas Program.

Why would someone need to undergo an organ transplant to get a new kidney?

The kidney removes toxins, regulates calcium and phosphorus and produces hormones that are critical for good health. When a kidney starts to fail and is no longer able to rid the body of toxins, patients can become tired, lose their appetite, become nauseous and wind up quite ill. If their kidneys are functioning at 20 percent or less, or if they’re on dialysis, patients are able to be put on the transplant list. Unfortunately, many patients spend years on the waiting list because there are simply not enough organs available. For many kidney patients, their best chance of getting a transplant is to find a living donor — someone who is healthy and a good fit on a number of measures — who agrees to donate one of their two healthy kidneys.

Why are kidney donations from living donors ideal?

Kidneys, unlike a heart or lung, are able to be donated by a healthy, willing donor who is alive. Living donors offer the best chance of survival for transplant patients. When a kidney is transplanted from a living donor, the organ is immediately given to the recipient within hours, which minimizes the chance of complications during surgery and recovery. In cases of living donation, recipients who receive kidneys from living donors typically know where their organ is coming from, unlike people receive organs from a deceased donor.

What provisions are made for donors to ensure they can donate safely and freely?

Living donors undergo a series of evaluations to make sure they are physically and mentally healthy enough to undergo the operation, including blood tests, colonoscopies, heart screenings and other age-appropriate tests. Transplant programs also perform evaluations to make sure the donor can maintain a healthy lifestyle and will have an adequate support system after the surgery. Donors also have a designated advocacy team made up of nephrologists (kidney specialists), social workers and primary care providers who aren’t involved with the transplant case. Their job is to protect the donor’s best interests and make sure they aren’t being coerced into donating. While offering money for organs is illegal in the United States, donors can receive transportation, boarding and wage reimbursements to accommodate their hospital stay during the procedure.

What’s the kidney procurement surgery like for a living donor?

We remove a kidney through a minimally invasive surgery that makes a small C-section-type incision. This significantly reduces recovery time. In fact, donors are often able to be released from the hospital the next day with minimal pain and scarring.

Who are the ideal candidates for kidney donation?

Ideal donors can come from all walks of life. Sometimes complete strangers donate. The wait time to receive a kidney can be as long as five to eight years. In that time, a patient’s health can deteriorate, and they may not be well enough to undergo transplant surgery anymore. By knowing someone who they can receive a kidney directly from, the patient’s time spent on the wait time decreases dramatically. As long as the living donor is at least 18 years old and in overall good physical and psychological health, anyone can volunteer to be a living kidney donor.

If I want to donate my kidney, but I’m not a match for a family member who needs a transplant, then can I still help someone?

Organizations like the National Kidney Registry (NKR) work with UChicago Medicine to ensure patients can receive the best match for their kidney transplants with the best outcomes for patients and donors. If a living donor’s kidney is not a good match for their chosen recipient, donors can give their kidney to another waitlist patient in exchange for another donated kidney that better matches the patient they are advocating for. This “swap” program also offers legal support and financial protection for living donors after they donate.

What happens to living donors after they donate their kidney?

After their operation, kidney donors have follow-up appointments immediately after surgery, at six months and then one and two years after donation to ensure their health is in stable condition after donating. Donors typically recover faster than recipients and report that they are glad they donated their organ to someone in need.

How do I become a living kidney donor?

Organizations such as UNOS, Gift of Hope and the NKR assist potential donors interested in donating a kidney. For next steps to becoming a living donor, contact UChicago Medicine and ask about the kidney donor program by calling 1-888-824-0200.

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