You can get a kidney from a person who is still alive, or someone who has just died. People can survive with just one healthy kidney, so someone with two healthy kidneys may choose to donate one. This is called a living donor transplant. A deceased donor kidney transplant comes from someone who has just died. You can get this type of transplant by being on the national waiting list.
Living donor transplant
A living donor kidney transplant is a surgery to give you a healthy kidney from someone who is still alive. This is possible because each person only needs one healthy kidney to live. A person with two healthy kidneys can donate one kidney to a person with kidney failure. A living donor can be a family member, friend or even a stranger!
Kidneys from living donors can sometimes last almost twice as long as kidneys from deceased donors. On average living kidney donor transplants last 15-20 years. How long your kidney will last depends on many factors, but the most important is how well you take care of it. To help your new kidney last as long as possible, you must take your medicine every day, as many times a day as your doctor tells you, and at the times your doctor tells you. Skipping your medicine can cause your new kidney to stop working.
Before you can have a living donor kidney transplant, you will need to have an evaluation at your transplant center. The evaluation will help the transplant team figure out if transplant is a good option for you.
You will also have tests that will help the doctors gather information about your kidneys, so that they can make sure your donor’s kidney is a good match for yours.
Finding a living donor
There are two types of living donation:
- Directed donation – the living donor chooses the specific person they want to give their kidney to. This type of donation usually happens when the donor and patient are family members or friends.
- Non-directed donation – the living donor does not name a specific person who should receive their kidney. The kidney can be given to anyone in need of a kidney who is a match. A non-directed donation is less common than a directed donation.
To receive a living donor kidney transplant, you will need to find someone who is willing and able to give you his or her kidney. A friend or family member may offer to give you one of his or her kidneys, or you might have to take the first step and ask a friend or a family member if he or she would be willing to be a kidney donor. It can be difficult to know how to start a conversation about organ donation. The United Network for Organ Sharing has some useful tips on how to have these conversations.
Some people do not have a friend or family member who is willing, or able to donate a kidney. Your transplant team may be able to help you find a donor who you do not know, or you may be able to participate in a paired kidney exchange.
Wait time for a living kidney donor
If you have a donor who is willing and able to give you a kidney, you can have your transplant as soon as both you and your donor are ready. Keep in mind that being ready for transplant sometimes depends on things that are out of your control, such as other health problems you or your donor may have. Talk to your transplant team to find out if there is anything you need to do to get ready for transplant.
If you do not have a donor, you may have to wait years for a transplant. The average waiting time for a deceased donor transplant is 3 to 5 years. You may look for a living donor while you wait for a deceased donor kidney and have your transplant using whichever kidney is available first.
Paired kidney exchange
Alice wants to give a kidney to Andrew, but they’re not a good match. Bill wants to give a kidney to Betsy, but they’re also not a good match. However, Alice is a good match for Betsy and Bill is a good match for Andrew. So, Alice donates her kidney to Betsy, and Bill donates his kidney to Andrew. That way, everyone who needs a kidney gets one.
Paired kidney donation (or paired exchange) is an option when you have a relative or friend who is willing and able to be a kidney donor, but he or she is not a match for you. In a paired exchange, your relative or friend gives a kidney to someone who needs it, and that recipients’ relative or friend gives his or her kidney to you. Look at the picture below to understand how this works.
Talk to your transplant team if you are interested in participating in a paired exchange.
Incompatible kidney transplant
Certain transplant centers now offer incompatible kidney transplants, which are done when the donor kidney has a blood type or antibodies that do not match well (are incompatible with) the recipient’s (the person getting the kidney). Transplant doctors use special methods to make the recipient’s body less sensitive to the donor’s unmatched (incompatible) blood or antibodies. Talk to your doctor about whether this could be an option for you.
Deceased donor transplant
Most people who have kidney transplants get their new kidney from a deceased donor. A deceased donor is someone who has just died. This person or their family members decided to donate healthy organs at the time of death in order to benefit people who need transplants. No matter how the person died, his or her kidney will only be given to you if it is healthy and likely to work in your body.
On average, deceased kidney donor transplants last 10-15 years. Your transplanted kidney might work for less time or more time. How long your kidney will last depends on many factors, but the most important is how well you take care of it. To help your new kidney last as long as possible, you must take your medicine every day, as many times a day as your doctor tells you, and at the times your doctor tells you. Skipping your medicine can cause your new kidney to stop working.
Before you can have a living donor kidney transplant, you will need to have an evaluation at your transplant center. The evaluation will help the transplant team figure out if transplant is a good option for you. If the transplant team decides you are healthy enough for a transplant, you may be added to the national waitlist.
Waiting for a deceased donor kidney
Most people wait for three to five years for a kidney transplant from a deceased donor. You might wait for more time or less time. Your wait time might depend on where you live, the availability of a matching kidney in your area, how long you have been on dialysis, your age, and more. Ask your doctor for more information about the things that can affect your wait time.
If a kidney becomes available from a deceased donor, you will get a phone call from the transplant center asking you to come to the hospital right away. It is very important that you are always reachable by phone. If you intend to travel, tell your transplant team about your travel plans.
When you arrive at the hospital, you will have blood tests to make sure that the kidney is a good match for you. Sometimes people get to the hospital and, after having these tests, have to return home because the donor kidney is not a good match. The transplant could also be canceled if the doctors find something is wrong with the donor kidney. If you are called to the transplant center and then cannot have a transplant, try not to be discouraged. You might get another call soon!