Deceased donor kidney transplants

Medically reviewed by
AKF's Medical Advisory Committee
Last updated
April 18, 2023

If your doctor says a kidney transplant is a good option for you, learn about deceased donation (a kidney from someone who has just died). The process to get a deceased donor kidney transplant includes calling a transplant center and getting an evaluation to see if you are healthy enough for surgery. If you are, your name will go on the national waiting list for a deceased donor kidney. 

While you are waiting, consider looking for a living kidney donor (a kidney from someone who is still alive).

What is a deceased donor kidney transplant?

A deceased donor kidney transplant is a surgery to give you a healthy kidney from someone who has just died. The person may have died in an accident or been recently removed from life support in a hospital. No matter how the person died, their kidney will only be given to you if it is healthy and likely to work in your body. Deceased donor kidney transplants last 10 to 15 years on average and living kidney donor transplants last 15 to 20 years on average. 

Facts about deceased donor transplant

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    About six out of 10 people who have kidney transplants get their new kidney from a deceased donor. 

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    One donor can save eight lives and enhance the lives of 75 more.

How does someone become a deceased donor?

A deceased donor is someone who has just died and had previously given permission (or whose legally authorized representative gave permission) to donate their healthy organs. For a person to be a deceased organ donor, they must die in a way that allows blood and oxygen to flow through their organs after their brain activity has ended — such as through a head injury.

Deceased donors can donate many parts of their body, including:

  • Organs such as their kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, pancreas, intestines, hands and face
  • Tissues such as the clear part of their eye (cornea), skin, bone and veins

One donor can save eight lives and enhance the lives of 75 more.

How do I give permission to be a deceased donor?

To give your permission to donate organs when you die, you can register as an organ donor: 

At your local department of motor vehicles, such as when you renew your driver's license
Online through a donor registry for the state where you live 
Through the National Donate Life Registry 

If you register as an organ and tissue donor, tell your family and friends so they know that you want to donate. If your family or friends do not know if you wanted to donate, your doctor will check the state and national donor registries to see if you registered.

If you did not register as an organ and tissue donor, your doctor will talk with your next of kin or legally authorized representative (usually a spouse, relative or close friend) about donating. They must give their permission, if you did not, before doctors can use your organs and tissue.

Can a healthy kidney come from someone who died from a drug overdose?

Yes, recent studies found no real difference in the five-year survival of those who got organs from overdose death donors compared to other deceased donors. Most people who died of an overdose are labeled "increased infectious risk" donors (IRD), because they may have a higher chance of hepatitis C or HIV infection.

Before using any organ or tissue for a transplant, doctors carefully test it to make sure it does not have any infection. Currently, more than one in eight deceased donor transplants are from donors who died of an overdose.

How can I get on the waiting list to receive a deceased donor kidney?

Getting on the waiting list is a process. First, ask your doctor if a kidney transplant is a good option for you. If your doctor says yes, they will refer you to a transplant center in your area.

Call a transplant center to get an evaluation

To know if you are healthy enough for transplant surgery, you will need a transplant center to give you a full health evaluation. As part of the evaluation, you will need to visit the transplant center many times to have tests and exams. The process may take days, weeks or even months.

The test results will help the transplant team decide if you are ready and healthy enough to have transplant surgery.

Learn more about evaluation for transplant.

Get onto the waiting list for a deceased donor transplant

If the transplant team decides you are healthy enough for surgery, you may be approved to get on the waiting list for a deceased donor kidney.

Most people wait for three to five years for a kidney transplant from a deceased donor. Your wait time may be shorter or longer than this.

Your wait time may depend on things such as:

  • Where you live
  • If a matching kidney is available in your area
  • How long you have been on dialysis
  • Your age

Ask your doctor about other things that may affect your wait time.

Learn about getting on the kidney transplant waiting list.

Consider getting a kidney from an expanded criteria donor

There are different types of deceased donor kidneys. Standard criteria donors (SCD) are people who died under age 50, and their kidneys are in high demand.

Expanded criteria donors (ECDs) are people who died either:

  • At age 60 or older
  • Between the ages of 50 and 59 with two of these problems:
    • Had high blood pressure
    • Had less than normal kidney function, based on an eGFR test
    • Died because of a stroke

ECD kidneys may be available sooner than SCD kidneys, and can still help you live longer and improve your quality of life. If one ECD kidney does not work well enough by itself, you may be able to get a transplant of two ECD kidneys (dual kidney transplant). The kidneys can work together as well as one healthy kidney.

Talk to your transplant center to find out if an ECD kidney or dual kidney transplant is an option for you.

Consider looking for a living donor while you wait

While you wait for a deceased donor transplant, consider looking for a living donor. A living donor kidney transplant is a surgery to give you a healthy kidney from someone who is still alive.

There are many advantages to getting a kidney from a living donor, including:

  • Transplant can happen sooner: A living donor transplant may happen as soon as both you and your donor are ready.
  • The kidney has less chance of rejection: Living donor kidneys have a better chance of being accepted by the recipient's immune system.
  • The kidney lasts longer: Living donor transplants last 15 to 20 years on average, compared to 10 to 15 years on average for deceased donor transplants.

Ask your doctor how a living donor transplant compares to a deceased donor transplant.

Learn more about living donor kidney transplant.

How will I know if a deceased donor kidney is ready for me?

If a kidney is 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. For example, tell your transplant team about any travel plans before you leave town.

Does the transplant surgery always happen?

Not always. When you arrive at the hospital, you will have blood tests to make sure that the deceased donor kidney is a good match for you. Sometimes surgery is canceled if doctors find out that:

  • Tests show the donor kidney is not a good match for the recipient
  • 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!

How can I help my new kidney last longer after surgery?

How long your new kidney lasts will depend on many things, but the most important is how well you take care of it.

To help your new kidney last as long as possible:

  • 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 fail.
  • Make healthy changes, such as eating healthy foods and being active every day.
  • Reach out to get support for your physical, emotional and mental health when needed.

Learn about life after transplant.