5 Facts About Being a Kidney Donor

Updated February 19, 2020

Being a living kidney donor is truly a gift of a lifetime, but many people don’t realize they can give this gift of life without endangering their own. Duke performs about 200 kidney transplants annually, with one-third being from living donors. Matthew Ellis, MD, a kidney transplant specialist at Duke University Hospital, sets the record straight regarding five common misconceptions that potential kidney donors may have.

Myth: I have to be related to someone to donate a kidney to him or her.

Fact: New anti-rejection medications make it possible to donate to distant relatives, even friends.

Duke’s transplant team takes prospective donors through a careful physical and psychological screening process -- much of which can be done remotely for donors who live far away -- to make sure the donor can undergo the surgery with no ill effects, physical or otherwise.

Myth: The surgery is difficult, expensive, and I’ll need to take a lot of time off.

Fact: Today’s kidney donation surgery usually takes only a few hours, requires only a few small incisions. Most people -- 95 percent -- are discharged the next day.

“It usually takes two to three weeks to get back to almost all of your normal activities, including work, and about six to eight weeks to feel completely normal,” Dr. Ellis said.

All hospital expenses are paid for by the recipient’s medical coverage -- only costs of travel, time off work, and a few post-surgery medications aren’t covered. There are several organizations that may help cover those costs for donors who cannot.

Myth: After the surgery, my life will be different, and it might limit what I can do.

Fact: Careful screening of donors means that only people who are in very good health will be selected -- and for those people, the risks of future complications are very low.

Women of childbearing age can still have healthy pregnancies after donating, and the risk for future kidney disease is not affected by the donation of a single kidney.

“Your health care needs after the surgery are essentially the same as before the surgery,” said Dr. Ellis.

Kidney donors will need regular blood and urine tests to monitor kidney function, and they need to watch their blood pressure and body weight so they must visit their primary care doctor every year but, as Hicks pointed out, that’s something everyone should do anyway.

Myth: If my intended recipient and I aren’t a match, the process ends there.

Fact: A variety of options makes it possible for you and your recipient to match, or to find another compatible pair elsewhere.

One option is for you and your donor to receive medical treatments before and after transplant that allow you to receive a kidney from a donor with a different blood type. Another option may be for you and your recipient to enter Duke’s paired exchange program.

Your recipient receives a kidney from someone else’s donor, and another recipient receives your kidney.  Finally, if for some reason you and your donor cannot be a pair, we can help empower your donor to be an advocate and help you in your search for another living donor.

Myth: Duke doesn’t accept “Good Samaritan” kidney donations.

Fact: Duke accepts altruistic (non-directed) donors -- those who are willing to donate a kidney to a recipient in need, even if that person is a stranger.

More than 100,000 people in the United States are waiting for a kidney donation, according to government statistics. To learn more about organ donation, visit unos.org or the National Kidney Foundation. Or, learn more about the process by filling out this questionnaire.