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Five things to know about becoming a living liver donor

Did you know that you can donate a portion of your liver to save a life? Hepatologist Julie Thompson, MD, talks about the ultimately rewarding process of becoming a living liver donor.
University of Minnesota Health Hepatologist Julie Thompson, MD, (right) is a liver transplant specialist. Because the human liver is capable of regenerating, living donors can donate part of the organ to another person, and by doing so can save a life

Most people know that you can donate a kidney to a family member, friend or another person in need—but what about donating part of your liver? Yes, you can share that, too, and by doing so save someone’s life.

Doctors performed the first living-donor liver transplant in 1989. Since that time, more than 6,100 of these surgeries have taken place across the United States. Still, many people are unaware that a living person can donate a portion of his or her liver.

We asked University of Minnesota Health Hepatologist Julie Thompson, MD, a liver transplant specialist, to share five things we should know about becoming a living liver donor. Here’s what she had to say:

The human liver is very resilient.

“The liver is an amazing organ—capable of regenerating back to its full size if it is split or a portion removed,” Thompson said.

This remarkable quality makes living-donor liver transplants possible. During a living-donor liver transplant, highly qualified surgeons remove a portion of the donor’s liver, and then transplant it into a recipient. Both portions of the liver will regrow over the next three months, stopping when they reach full size. The two surgeries occur on the same day at the same transplant center, often in adjacent operating rooms. Surgeons map out living-donor liver donations well in advance, allowing both recipients and donors to prepare while also relieving anxiety for recipients looking for a new liver.

Living-donor liver transplants can be performed safely, but there are some risks.

As with any major operation, living-donor liver transplants come with some associated risks and possible complications, including pain, infection, abdominal bleeding, intestinal problems or bile leakage. A patient can minimize the risks by choosing to have the transplant procedure at a highly experienced transplant center, such as University of Minnesota Medical Center, Thompson said.

Since 1997, University of Minnesota Health has performed nearly 200 living-donor liver transplants, with great success. Our care team spends a great deal of time planning and reviewing surgical procedures with potential donors. We take time to explain the risks, and tell donors what they can expect both during and after the surgery. Most living liver donors leave the hospital within a week. The majority of our donors are well enough to return to work in three months.

Learn more about our liver transplant services.

Not everyone can donate.

Not everyone is suitable or eligible to be a living liver donor, but Thompson and her colleagues encourage anyone interested in becoming a liver donor to go through screening. To become a liver donor at University of Minnesota Medical Center, potential donors must be between the ages of 20 and 50, must have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 30 and have a “meaningful relationship” with the person who needs a new liver, although they don’t have to be related.

Learn more about becoming a living liver donor.

Living liver donors can save lives.

The best reason to donate? It saves lives. Approximately one quarter of the people waiting for a liver on the transplant list will die before they get the organ they need. Some people in need of a transplant may become too sick to undergo the surgery if they wait too long for a donor organ. A living donation gets them a liver sooner, giving them a better chance to live.

“Some people can wait, but many can’t,” Thompson said. “The best option for many people with liver disease is to get a living donor liver transplant.

The short- and long-term survival for recipients of a living donor liver transplant are similar to the survival rates for those who receive a deceased donor liver transplant, Thompson said.

Support and resources are available for living donors.

Time and money can be the biggest barriers to living liver donation. Many people are unable to take three months off from work for surgery and recovery. Thankfully, resources are available for many donors. Many employed donors are eligible for short-term disability leave, or can apply for sick leave from their employer when donating.

The recipient’s insurance will cover all donor evaluation, surgery, hospitalization and follow-up care costs. Many states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, also offer tax breaks for organ donors. Donors can also apply for national grants to help support them during recovery. University of Minnesota Health social workers and staff can connect donors with these resources and assist with applications.

“These resources enable potential donors give their loved ones a new liver and a new life,” Thompson said.