By Cosme Manzarbeitia, M.D., lead transplant surgeon, Crozer-Keystone Regional Transplant Center
Most people know that kidneys play a vital role in keeping the body functioning properly. Their primary purpose is to remove waste and excess fluid while maintaining a stable balance of body chemicals.
Across the U.S., there are approximately 118,000 people on waiting lists for life-saving organ transplant, including approximately 96,000 people waiting for a kidney. In our region alone, there are 5,233 approved candidates for kidney transplant. Unfortunately, the reality is that this year less than 17,000 people across the nation will receive an organ from a deceased donor. There simply aren’t enough donors.
Many kidney failure patients use dialysis due to the shortage of kidney donations. Dialysis involves replacing many of the kidney’s functions with a machine that filters harmful wastes, salt and excess fluid from your blood. This treatment restores your blood to a normal and healthy balance.
However, research has shown that the life expectancy is much better for kidney transplant patients than it is for those who spend a lifetime on dialysis. Because of this, kidney transplants are the preferred treatment method, making kidney donations ever more important.
With a kidney transplant, a healthy donor kidney does the work for the damaged kidneys. The donor kidney is able to do the work of two failed kidneys and there’s typically no need for dialysis after.
Becoming an Organ Donor
A kidney donation can come from a living or deceased donor. Just one deceased donor can save up to eight lives and can help up to 50 people through tissue and cornea donation. For more information on how to become an organ donor, visit the Gift of Life Donor Program.
However, being a living kidney donor offers better outcomes to the recipient. Studies have shown the outcome of a transplant from a living donor is better than that of a deceased donor. If you’re receiving a kidney from a living donor, there’s less of a waiting period for the organ than one from a deceased donor. In addition, the transplant surgery can be timed to meet your needs, allowing you to prepare both physically and mentally for surgery.
When a kidney comes from a living donor, it usually begins functioning immediately, which makes it easier for doctors to monitor. Some kidneys from deceased donors don’t function right away. If this happens, you may need dialysis until the kidney can function on its own.
Many living kidney donor transplants are done between family members who are genetically similar, which lessens the risk of rejection. However, spouses, friends and even “strangers” can give the gift of life through paired donation and altruistic donation.
Becoming a living kidney donor is a big decision, and probably sounds scary, but research shows there’s little long-term risk for you. Before donating, you receive a thorough exam to determine if you’re a good match for the potential recipient. Additionally, you’ll be carefully checked to ensure you don’t have any health issues that could become worse with a kidney donation.
While donating a kidney involves major surgery, which always involves risks, your health won’t suffer due to only having one remaining kidney. Having only one kidney after donating doesn’t affect your own risk of kidney failure – your risk of kidney failure is the same as those who aren’t kidney donors. In fact, living kidney donors tend to live longer than those who are not donors, most likely because they have been screened so thoroughly and determined to be in excellent health prior to donation.
Yes, donating a kidney is a major decision, but the results are great, the downside is minimal. The need for kidney donors, both living and deceased, has never been greater than it is now. As transplantation continues to offer patients better outcomes, more patients are waiting for a kidney that matches their needs. Without an increase in donors, some patients may expect to wait longer for a deceased donor kidney. If you are intent on becoming an organ donor, do more than just register at the DMV. Have a discussion with your family and loved ones, so that they will know your wishes and can advocate for you when the time comes.