Living kidney donation is a gift like no other. People living with end-stage kidney failure must have dialysis every two or three days, traveling to a dialysis center and sitting for four or five hours while their blood is circulating through a machine that cleans waste products and toxins from the blood. The process is exhausting, and everything in their lives must take dialysis appointments into account.
Long-term dialysis can also damage a person’s other organ systems. “We encourage patients to get a transplant from a living donor whenever possible,” said Kirsten Curtis, Living Donor Coordinator at Inova. Receiving a kidney from a living donor is associated with better outcomes for the transplant recipients, and it does not affect the living donor’s life expectancy at all.
Inova’s living kidney donation program – the only health system in Northern Virginia that offers living kidney donation – has a nearly 30-year history of excellence. Inova is a multiorgan transplant center with experts in the transplant of heart, lungs, pancreas, and kidneys, among other organs. Inova is also a member of the Alliance for Paired Donation, offering kidney donors and recipients access to a wider transplant pool. But the real secret to the program’s stellar reputation and great outcomes is the living kidney donation team.
“We have a dedicated team who love working with living donors. I can’t say enough about them – they are extremely passionate,” said Phyllis Weech, Director of Transplant Services at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus. “Because of that, our program’s evaluation time is as fast as the donor wants it to be. We go at the donor’s pace, and if the donor wants to move through the process quickly, we can offer efficient workups and scheduling.”
Daniel and Tara’s story
After being diagnosed with sarcoidosis, Daniel received a heart transplant at Inova in 2018. After the transplant, he went into acute kidney failure and needed dialysis three times a week. Then, in August 2020, he met Tara.
“When we first met, I knew something was special about Tara. Our first date was magical: We talked and laughed as if we had known each other for years,” Daniel said. “I was reluctant to tell her about my medical condition, but after three months, I did. She asked me what my blood type was.”
“When Daniel shared details about his medical condition with me, I felt inspired to act. My first response was, ‘What is your blood type?’ I knew that I could manage perfectly well on one kidney and breezily offered him one of mine,” Tara said. “He looked astonished at the idea and said, ‘I can’t let you do that.’ I didn’t listen. I needed to know what the next steps were.”
In Inova’s living kidney donation program, potential donors like Tara are in the driver’s seat. As a first step, potential living donors speak with a living donor advocate – before any testing is done. The living donor advocate’s role is to speak up and advocate for the potential donor’s needs and well-being throughout the process. Throughout the evaluation and testing process, potential living donors receive counseling to help them understand the potential psychological and emotional impacts of their donation. Inova also has a transplant psychiatrist on staff, who is available both before and after transplant to address a donor’s concerns. During the testing process, living donors have their own team to ensure that the entire process is safe from the donor’s perspective.
In December 2020, Tara began the evaluation process for living kidney donation. “I chose to look at it as the world’s best physical examination,” she said. In February, Tara got word that she was approved. “I was his perfect match,” she said.
Tara was sure that helping Daniel was what she wanted to do. Because she is young and healthy, the evaluation process was completed quickly, and both Daniel and Tara prepared for surgery. In nearly all cases, Inova’s kidney transplant team removes the living donor’s kidney using a minimally invasive laparoscopic procedure. Minimally invasive surgery has a lower risk of complications such as blood loss and results in a quicker recovery with almost no scarring. Tara recovered quickly from the surgery and has no restrictions as a result of her donation.
“One great thing about living kidney donation is that after surgery, the living donor doesn’t have to change much about their life. They do not need to take medication, and they can live a perfectly healthy, normal life with one kidney,” Kirsten said.
Some other things potential donors may not know about living kidney donation, according to Kirsten, are that kidneys are matched using blood type, which makes for easier matching than some other organ transplants. Many people also mistakenly think that because they have elected to be an organ donor on their driver’s license, they are on a donor list – but that is not the case. There is no registry for living kidney donation. Another thing to know is that all of the donor’s medical expenses are covered, so a donor does not have any out-of-pocket costs before or after transplant.
Immediately after Tara’s kidney was transplanted into Daniel’s body, it began to work – freeing Daniel from dependence on dialysis. “I had prayed for a donor – and an angel was attached to it,” Daniel said. “That’s what I call her now – my angel.”
“A lot of people are interested in donation, but they rule themselves out as a donor prematurely. You do not have to be related to the recipient, you do not have to be the same gender, and you do not even have to know the person,” Kirsten said. “The bottom line is that if you are interested in living kidney donation, just contact us to find out more.”
Daniel and Tara encourage anyone who might be interested in becoming a living kidney donor to contact the program. “I am deeply and eternally grateful I was able to give Daniel this amazing second chance at life,” Tara said. “Donating my kidney was the best experience of my life.”