It is important to understand the risks and benefits of living donor kidney transplant before deciding to donate a kidney or receive a kidney from a living donor.
Living donor evaluation
A transplant from a living donor is the best option for most kidney transplant candidates.
There are many reasons why a kidney from a living donor is better than a kidney from someone who has died:
Doctors have been doing transplants from living donors for over 50 years, and nationally over 5,000 people donate a kidney every year. Although the restrictions vary from transplant center to center, living donors are typically volunteers who:
A living donor may be anyone—from family, friends, or neighbors of the kidney patient to a complete stranger. Donors do not have to be the same race, age, blood type, or sex as the kidney patient.
The medical team compares the blood of the donor and kidney patient to see if they are a match.
If they are a match, donors will go through evaluation, a set of medical and psychological tests such as:
The purpose of the evaluation is to make sure that the donor is healthy enough to have surgery and the donation is likely to work.
The donor can get all of these tests at a time that fits with their schedule, without having to stay overnight in the hospital. Donors also talk to a social worker or counselor who makes sure they have a support system, such as family and friends who can help them after the transplant.
The donor’s evaluation may take several months, depending on the health of the donor and how quickly they can do the tests.
There are many ways to donate a kidney.
Sometimes a donor isn’t a good match for the specific kidney patient they want to donate to.
Even so, they can still help the patient they know get a living donor transplant.
An exchange program, called a paired donation or a donor chain, makes it possible for 1 donor to help more than 1 kidney patient:
Desensitization can help if a kidney patient has extra antibodies, which will attack almost any transplanted kidney – this happens in 1 in 3 patients.
Antibodies are proteins in your blood that help your body fight disease. This can make it very hard or impossible to get a kidney transplant from a donor. In desensitization, you get a blood treatment that takes out your antibodies and replaces them with new ones. The treatment is similar to hemodialysis.
Your body will make new antibodies over time, and these new antibodies are less likely to attack a donor kidney. You may also get medicine to stop the unwanted antibodies from coming back.
You may need treatments both before and after your transplant. It may take several weeks of treatments before you’re ready for a transplant, or you may be ready after just 1 treatment. It only lasts for a short time, so usually you can only use this procedure if you have a living donor.
Desensitization may not be available in all transplant centers and it can be very costly. Talk to your healthcare team about if this is an option for you or if they can recommend a center that offers this treatment.
A person who’s being tested as a living donor can change their mind about donating at any point, for any reason—even on the day of surgery. There is no penalty for wanting to stop the process.
Living donor surgery & recovery
There are risks to all surgeries. There are medical, emotional, and financial risks to a kidney transplant. The transplant team keeps living donors as safe as possible. They will not let someone donate if they face any large risks. A Living Donor Advocate is a social worker, nurse, or doctor who protects the rights and health of living donors.
Normally, doctors remove the kidney through an opening only a few inches long. If there are problems, the opening may have to be larger and recovery time takes longer.
Donors may have some short-term problems from surgery, such as:
More serious problems from surgery happen in less than 5% of donors (less than 1 in 20 donors).
The surgical team does everything they can to avoid these problems. These could include:
The risk of death is less than 3 in 10,000 donors—this is much less than 1% of donors.
Medicare or the kidney patient’s private insurance will cover the donor’s medical costs. However, most insurance companies don’t cover:
Donation can sometimes change the donor’s ability to get or afford health, disability, or life insurance. Donors may also have issues getting work in military service, law enforcement, aviation, and fire departments.
The donor may feel upset or guilty if the kidney they donated isn’t working well. The donor’s relationship with the kidney patient might become strained if the kidney ever stops working.
There’s no way to know for sure how long the donor kidney will work. A living donor kidney usually lasts 15–20 years, but it may only work for a few years or not work at all.
Yes, both men and women can donate and still have children. Women should wait 1 year after donating before getting pregnant so that their bodies can heal fully.
Most living donors who follow a healthy lifestyle after surgery remain just as healthy after donation as people who have not donated. For most donors, the remaining kidney works fine for the rest of their life.
Most studies on the long-term outcomes of donors have followed donors for only the last 20 years.
For this reason, there is little information about the 40–50 year outcomes for donors.
Some kidney donors get high blood pressure or diabetes, which doctors can treat with medicine. People who donate a kidney have a very small chance of developing kidney disease. If it does happen, the donor is put at the top of the deceased donor waiting list to get a kidney transplant.
Women should talk with the transplant team about a small risk of high blood pressure during any future pregnancies.
The donor and kidney patient are admitted to the hospital on the morning of the surgery. Both surgeries happen at the same time and take 3–5 hours.
There are 2 main types of surgery:
Laparoscopy: This procedure uses a wand-like camera placed in small cuts in the donor’s belly.
It lets doctors view the kidney and take it out through a small cut. Doctors will then stitch the cuts closed.
The benefits of this type of surgery include:
Open surgery: Doctors cut open the donor’s belly to take out the kidney. Then they close the cut with stitches.
At the time of donation, the living donor will lose half of their kidney function. However, within 3-6 months, the remaining kidney is able to provide 70% of their initial kidney function. For most people, this is more than they need for the rest of their life.
Donors usually feel the most pain the first week after surgery, and can take medicine for their pain. Many donors say that seeing the kidney patient start to feel better helps them forget about their own pain.
Donors usually stay in the hospital for 1–2 days. After leaving the hospital, donors have to rest at home, usually for about a week, while their body begins to heal. Over time, they start to feel better and are able to do more. Most donors can drive and return to their normal lives in 4 weeks.
Transplant centers follow up with donors for at least 2 years after donation to make sure that they’re healing well and are healthy. After they’ve recovered, donors return to the care of their regular doctor.
They should have their blood pressure and kidney function checked regularly for the rest of their lives.
To learn more about kidney disease, treatment options, transplant, and living donation, visit Explore Transplant.