Between us, my son and I have four kidneys—not very remarkable, except that he has three of them. I gave him the extra one because I didn’t need it and, after being diagnosed with end stage renal disease and undergoing dialysis, he did. (It’s not uncommon to leave the two failing kidneys in place if they’re not causing any trouble.) I decided to be evaluated as his donor. Brave? Not me. I feel faint when I see a needle.
But my son’s wait for a deceased donor would have been years (as of January 2016, 100,791 kidney patients nationwide are on the waiting list for a kidney). And a kidney from a living donor works sooner and can last far longer.
As it turned out, living kidney donation was much easier than I’d expected and, I think, than most people realize.
True or False: The surgeon removes a rib to get to the donor’s kidney.
False: Thanks to minimally invasive laparascopic surgery (the standard of care), I had a few tiny slits and a three-inch bikini incision.
True or False: Donors must be young.
False: Nearly 30% of living donors are 50 or over. It’s only the health of the kidney that counts. I was 58 when I donated mine.
True or False: Donors stay in the hospital for a few weeks.
False: A typical stay is 2 to 4 days.
True or False: Donors need to miss work for 3 to 6 months.
False: I could have gone back to my job as an editor in a few weeks. A laborer might need 6 to 8 weeks.
True or False: There’s no turning back.
False: You can change your mind at any point. My transplant nurse coordinator, social worker, psychologist, nephrologist, and transplant surgeon all reassured me that I could. My son would know only that I had been eliminated.
Throughout the donor testing—blood draws, X-rays, a stress cardiogram, CT angiography, lung function test, and more—the nurse coordinator was just a phone call away. She offered gentle encouragement, useful tips (like lidocaine to numb my arm for blood draws), and, thankfully, a sense of humor.
After each test I’d call her nervously to see if I’d passed. How would I really feel if I were disqualified? Would I secretly be relieved? To my surprise, I realized I’d be crushed.
So when the psychologist asked if I was sure I wanted to do this, I laughed. “Trust me,” I said. “You can skip to the next question.”
When the surgery was scheduled, I was euphoric—and yes, panicky. Would I like to reschedule, the team asked. They think I’m having second thoughts! “You don’t understand,” I said. “It’d be the same if I were having my tonsils out.”
The night after the surgery I enjoyed a brief but serene sleep. I left the hospital with a mild painkiller and a strong sense of pride.
If you know someone who needs a kidney, please consider being a living donor. Talk to your family and your doctor. It could be the best decision you've ever made.
Carol Offen is a retired senior editor/writer at RTI International; she is currently working on a book, with a kidney recipient, tentatively titled “The Greatest Gift: An Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation.” In 2008, she donated a kidney to her adult son, who had developed IgA nephropathy following a strep infection.