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Five things you should know about becoming a kidney donor

Interested in donating a kidney to save a life? A University of Minnesota Health transplant surgeon and care team members share answers to common questions they receive from potential kidney donors.
University of Minnesota Health is home to one of the oldest and most successful organ transplantation programs in the world. To help inform potential donors, we asked three of our experts to answer some frequently asked questions regarding living donor kidney donation.

There are few things as selfless and significant as choosing to donate a kidney.

Many may consider donation for a friend, family member or stranger in need of a new organ, but questions surrounding cost, insurance coverage and potential health risks can discourage some from donating—and overwhelm or confuse others seeking answers.

We asked University of Minnesota Health Transplant Surgeon Arthur Matas, MD; Transplant Coordinator Anne Lecuyer-Koich, RN; and Social Worker Jennifer Wiseman, MSW, to help address some common concerns about the kidney transplant process.

University of Minnesota Health is home to one of the oldest and most successful organ transplantation programs in the world. We have cared for more than 4,600 living organ donors.

Learn more about University of Minnesota Health’s kidney transplant services.

How does organ donation affect a donor?

After the six-week recovery period following surgery, there are no restrictions on activity or diet for donors. Donors do not have to take any long-term medications as a result of organ donation. Donors often experience an emotional benefit related to the transplant, according to Matas. National Institutes of Health studies have shown that 95 percent of donors rated their experience as “excellent” and would choose to donate again if they could.

“Seeing a loved one gain health because of a donor’s contribution creates a strong sense of internal satisfaction,” Matas said.

The recipient of a living kidney donation sees significant improvements in his or her quality of life. He or she is not required to submit to dietary and/or lifestyle restrictions, and no longer needs routine dialysis. Living donor transplants experience better long-term survival rates and organ function than those who receive deceased donor transplants.

When kidney failure threatened Cathe Cheesebrow, a close friend chose to become a living kidney donor for Cathe. Read their story.

What risks are associated with kidney donation?

Kidney donation surgery, like many other major surgeries, carries a small risk of bleeding, blood clots, infection, hernia development or other potentially life-threatening complications. Long-term risks include high blood pressure, proteinuria and organ impairment.

Unlike other surgical procedures, which typically improve the patient’s medical condition, kidney donation is an elective surgery that carries no physical benefit for the donor, said Anne Lecuyer Koich, RN. This is why it is important to consider the donor’s physical risk and emotional preparedness before the surgery. Healthy donors may need six to eight weeks for full recovery, though the average hospital stay including the procedure is typically a few days.

What physical and/ or health requirements will I need to meet in order to donate?

Generally, a person must be healthy, have two normally functioning kidneys and cannot carry transmittable diseases such as Hepatitis C, Matas said. Along with the physical requirements, donors are also required to be of sound mental health. They must also have stable housing, stable income and adequate social support to help them following the donation procedure. A person donating a kidney should feel no pressure or coercion of any kind and must not have received any form of payment to be a donor, nor can they be abusing alcohol or illicit drugs, Wiseman said.

Who pays for testing? Will insurance cover the evaluation and the procedure?

The recipient’s healthcare insurer pays for the donor’s evaluation, transplant surgery and post-surgical care, said Anne Lecuyer-Koich.

Check out the American Transplant Foundation or Living Donor Assistance for information about financial programs or grants.

Potential donors must also consider other financial factors related to the surgery, Wiseman said. Although donors with desk jobs typically return to work within three to four weeks of surgery, those who have to lift as part of their job must wait six to eight weeks before returning to work. When planning for donation, donors should consider lost wages or increased childcare costs while recovering from surgery.

Can I donate a kidney to someone I do not know?

Yes. People eligible to donate can give to friends, family or anyone they are interested in helping. In addition, they can even offer to donate to any patient on the waiting list, even if that person is not known by the donor. This is called a “non-directed” kidney donation. University of Minnesota Health experts recently performed our 100th non-directed donation transplant. We are a national leader in both the quantity of these procedures and their outcomes.

“Our living kidney donor team will help assess your overall health, both physical and mental, in making a determination if living kidney donation is safe and right for you,” said Wiseman.