Organ Donation: Living & Saving Lives

By Kimberly Baldwin | MAEd Student, UAB Community Health & Human Services

There are over 100,000 people waiting to receive a life-saving organ transplant.  Another person is added to the national waiting list every 10 minutes. A single organ donor can save 8 lives, and impact over 75 through bone and tissue donation.  Those waiting for a kidney transplant make up the vast majority of the national transplant waiting list, and experience the longest wait times due to the shortage of available organs for transplant.

Unlike those waiting for other organ transplants, kidney and liver transplant candidates can receive a life-saving organ one of two ways: from a deceased donor or from a living donor.  Through living donation, a healthy person can donate a portion of their liver or one of their kidneys to someone in need, and continue to live a normal, healthy life.

About 600,000 people in the United States live with kidney failure, and require dialysis treatments to remove waste from the body.  Hypertension and Diabetes disproportionately affect those living in the South, and contribute to a host of chronic disease processes including chronic kidney disease (and ultimately, kidney failure).  Alabama has some of the longest kidney transplant wait times in the nation, where 18% of those listed will have to wait more than 5 years for a kidney transplant (OPTN 2022).  Receiving a kidney directly from a healthy living donor can drastically reduce this wait time, as a living donor can be evaluated and cleared for donation in as little as 4 weeks (National Kidney Registry 2019).  According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS 2022), kidneys from living donors function better and last longer.  A kidney from a living donor will function for an average of 15-20 years, compared with a kidney from a deceased donor which will function an average of 10-15 years.  Increased awareness about living kidney donation can positively impact the number of those willing to donate, thereby improving the lives of those in need of a kidney transplant.

A living kidney donor must be:

  • Over the age of 18
  • Mentally and physically healthy

Living donors go through a thorough evaluation to determine if they are healthy enough to donate their kidney.   Once approved, the surgery is scheduled, and both donor and recipient are admitted to the hospital.  The average hospital stay for living donors is only 2-3 days, and most donors return to regular physical activity within 4-6 weeks. 

Donors are often willing to help, but are concerned about their own health, job security, and finances during recovery.  In order to alleviate these concerns and to increase the pool of living donors, many private organizations, states, municipalities, and the federal government offer their employees paid leave benefits for living organ donation and bone marrow donation (American Transplant Foundation 2020).  The cost for the transplant surgery is covered by the recipient’s insurance company; however, donation-related expenses extend beyond the surgery itself.  The National Living Donor Assistance Center (NLDAC 2021) can help donors cover travel expenses, lodging, lost wages, and dependent care expenses.  Increased awareness about living kidney donation can help to bridge the gap between those waiting and those willing to give.

Frequently Asked Questions about living donation:

Will donating a kidney shorten my lifespan?

Donors tend to live a longer life because they are even more health-conscious post-donation, and hence have a better quality of life.

Should I follow a special diet following donation?

A kidney donor should eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, but there are no dietary restrictions following donation.

Will I still be able to exercise and participate in sports?

A kidney donor should be able to return to regular activities and exercise about 4-6 weeks after surgery.

After I donate a kidney, will I have to take medications for the rest of my life?

A kidney donor will be given prescriptions for pain medication and stool softeners at discharge from the hospital, which are only for use during the immediate post-operative period (1-2 weeks).  After that time, a donor does not have to take medication.   A kidney donor does not have to take anti-rejection medications (National Kidney Register, 2019).

References

National Living Donor Assistance Center. 2021. How NLDAC Helps. Retrieved from:  https://www.livingdonorassistance.org/How-to-Apply/How-NLDAC-Helps

United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). 2022. Living Donation. Retrieved from:  https://unos.org/transplant/living-donation/

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 2022. Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN). Retrieved from:  https://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/data/view-data-reports/state-data/

American Transplant Foundation. 2020. Living Donor Laws: State by State and Federal. Retrieved from: https://www.americantransplantfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Living_Donor_Laws_Federal_And_State_By_State.pdf

National Kidney Register. 2019. Get The Facts About Kidney Donation. Retrieved from:  https://www.kidneyregistry.org/for-donors/i-want-to-learn-more-about-living-kidney-donation/kidney-donation-facts/ National Kidney Register. 2019. Am I Qualified to Donate a Kidney? Retrieved from:  https://www.kidneyregistry.org/for-donors/am-i-qualified-to-donate-a-kidney/

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