The Top 5 Questions about Living Kidney Donation

Each year, more than 5,500 living donors successfully give an organ to someone waiting on the transplant list. If you are thinking about donating an organ to a relative, friend or even to a stranger, it’s important to understand the process and the risks involved. To help you with this important decision, we made a list of the top 5 questions about living donation. 

1. How can I be a living kidney donor to someone I know?

First, the person who needs a kidney has to be evaluated by a transplant center (a hospital that performs transplant operations) and accepted onto the transplant waiting list.  Next, you’ll need to speak with the transplant coordinator at that center.  If you live far away from the transplant center where your loved one is being evaluated, you may be able to have some of the testing done near you. However, you should speak with your loved one’s transplant center first so they can start the process.

2. What tests are used to determine if someone can be a kidney donor?

There are a number of tests that will be done to determine if you are able to be a living donor and if you’re a good match for the recipient. In general, you should be in overall excellent health with no medical problems, and have two kidneys and normal kidney function. You may need physical examinations, psychological testing and donor/recipient compatibility testing, including blood and tissue typing. 

3. What’s involved in the surgery and what’s the recovery period?  

Most kidneys are removed by laparoscopic technique but occasionally an open technique may be required for the donor surgery. Hospital stays for the donor can be as short as 2 days but more typically it is 3 or 4 days.

After leaving the hospital, the donor may experience some tenderness, itching, and pain in the incision site as it continues to heal. There may be some limitation on heavy lifting for 6 weeks after the surgery. You may also need to restrict contact sports for a time, but it is important to stay physically fit after surgery. Ask the transplant team when you can resume physical activity after the surgery. 

4. What are the long-term risks of kidney donation? 

Kidney donors generally do well after donating. Surgery complications can include pain, nerve damage, hernia formation, and bowel complications. 

Several recent studies have shown very small but significant long-term risks:

  • Reduced kidney function
  • High blood pressure
  • Protein in the urine
  • Very small risk of kidney failure later in life (about 3 out of 1,000 kidney donors)

5. Who pays for living donation? 

The costs of living kidney donation, evaluation, testing and surgery are generally paid for by the recipient’s Medicare or private health insurance. The donor may be responsible for some travel expenses. Contact the National Foundation Patient Help Line at 855.NKF.Cares or nkfcares@kidney.org to inquire about programs that might help you offset any out-of-pocket costs. 

Lost wages due to time off work will not be covered. However, the donor may be eligible for sick leave and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) through their employer. The financial counselor or social worker at the transplant center can help answer questions about the cost of kidney donation. 

Visit the National Kidney Foundation’s The Big Ask/ The Big Give to learn more about living donation.