Giving the gift of life: Demystifying the process of becoming a living kidney donor

Heather Perez Saiz, MA, LCSW, CCTSW, is the Independent Living Donor Advocate at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus.

Kirsten Curtis is the Transplant Coordinator at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus.

Currently there are almost 90,000 people on the kidney transplant list in the United States and the need is greater than ever. In 2023, there were approximately 27,000 kidney transplants and just about 6,200 were from living donors.

More living kidney donors are needed                                           

Today, the high demand for kidney transplants outpaces the supply of available organs. A living donor gives someone in need of a transplant hope for a renewed quality of life. Kidneys from a living donor are essential because they usually last about twice as long for the recipient, from about 15 to 20 years on average in the recipient’s body. Other donors’ organs will only last about seven to 12 years on average. While kidney transplants are medically necessary, they also provide donors with an opportunity to transform lives through generosity and empathy.

These are the top three reasons patients need a kidney transplant:

  1. Complications from diabetes
  2. Complications from high blood pressure
  3. Genetic causes such as polycystic kidney disease

More people who are willing to become living kidney donors would increase the total number of transplants possible and decrease the number of people on the waiting list. In 2023, Inova performed 161 transplants, the most ever in one year– 32 of those were thanks to living donors.

Becoming a living kidney donor

Living kidney donors are medically evaluated to ensure they are healthy, fit to donate and compatible with the recipient. In addition, potential risks to their own health are assessed. A living donor must be over 18, healthy and willing to donate one of their kidneys to someone in need.

Things to consider before becoming a living kidney donor

Becoming a living kidney donor is an intense commitment and it demonstrates the selflessness of those willing to sacrifice to help others. One of the biggest factors is the donor’s support system. Do they have someone that can help them after the surgery? Sometimes there is also a small risk of depression. The Inova Abdominal Transplant Center team has a living donor advocate, a living donor social worker and a psychologist. These team members are essential to explore any psychosocial stressors that the living donor might be experiencing by looking very closely at their emotional health.

Our independent living donor advocate and social worker both follow a donor with signs of depression very, very closely, offering support and connections to other providers. Other risks to consider include the risks inherent in surgery along with the risks of living with one kidney. Even with these risks, those who have one kidney can lead full, active lives as long as they carefully monitor their health.

Pre-surgery process

Inova empowers its donors to guide the process, and decide what works for them. The team starts with lab work, completes a safety check and they let donors know when they are approved and can move forward once a match is identified.

Post-surgery process

Seven days after the surgery, Inova performs a post-op review with the surgeon and with the transplant coordinators. They also conduct lab assessments after six months, then one year and two years and follow donors very closely for the first two years in order to provide emotional support and any medical help they may need. The team ensure that donors are still feeling normal after their surgery and that their kidney function is recovering as it should.

An extraordinary symbol of hope

Living kidney donation is an act defined by generosity, compassion and courage. Donors become living symbols of hope as they offer those in need the most precious gift of all – life.

One Inova patient, Carolina, was diagnosed with stage 4 chronic kidney disease and discovered she needed a kidney transplant. After the kidney transplant Carolina got a second chance at life. “I didn’t realize the state I was in until I got energy back and it’s like a complete 180,” said Carolina.

In the words of Buster, who donated his kidney to his loved one, “Being a living donor is one of the most fulfilling feelings you will ever have.”

If you are interested in donating or learning more, contact the living kidney donor program at Inova:

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