This page is obviously a work in progress and will grow in response to your questions.
Do I have to be a family member to donate my kidney to someone?
No. You could be friends, neighbors, acquaintances, in-laws–or even total strangers. Donating to one’s child, as I did, is fairly common, and family members remain the largest portion of donors, but more and more living donors are not related to their recipient.
Who pays for my surgery and the donor evaluation?
The recipient’s health insurance, whether private, Medicare, or Medicaid, typically covers these costs (sometimes a transplant center will pay for the evaluation). The donor is not responsible for donation-related medical costs other than any routine screenings for which he or she is expected to be up to date. For example, because I was over 50, I had to be current on a colonoscopy.
Can I get paid for donating my kidney?
No. It is illegal in the United States, and in many other countries, to pay for donated organs. Donors’ related expenses can be compensated, however.
How safe is the donor surgery?
The minimally invasive donor surgery is still major surgery, with a risk of complications comparable to most major abdominal surgeries.
Will I have to be on any kidney-related medications for the rest of my life?
No. Donors typically do not take any medication related to their having donated. I have never needed any special medication.
Are there age limits on who can donate a kidney?
There is generally a minimum age: most centers require that donors be at least 18 years old, but some prefer that someone be at least 25 to make such a major decision. At the upper end, most centers do not have a hard-and-fast cutoff, because it’s the health of the kidney–and the donor’s overall health–that matters more than their chronological age. I’ve met donors who were in their seventies when they donated. I was 58 when I donated to my son.
How long does the evaluation process take?
The process generally takes several months but varies considerably, depending on the transplant center, the donor’s needs, and everyone’s schedule. Many centers can now do it in a matter of days. Mine was about 6 months from the start of testing to the transplant.
Can I live a normal life with one kidney?
Yes. Donors lose some kidney function, but the remaining kidney enlarges and takes on part of that role. For the majority of donors, the resulting kidney function is sufficient to live a normal life. Many people are actually born with just one kidney and are otherwise healthy.
What if I’m not a match for the person I want to donate to?
In most cases, you can still donate and help your intended recipient. Paired donation allows donors/recipients to swap with a pair who similarly are not a match for each other but match you and your recipient. When a nondirected donor initiates a chain, several people can be helped. The longest kidney-donor chain at a single U.S. transplant center is ongoing, with about 100 transplants to date.
How long does a donor usually stay in the hospital?
A typical stay is 1 or 2 nights. In 2006, when I donated to my son, I stayed in the hospital for 4 days.
How long would I have to be out of work?
That depends on the type of work you do. I could have gone back to my sedentary job as an editor in 2 or 3 weeks. A laborer might need 2 or 3 months.
If I don’t have enough sick leave for time I need to take off work to donate, would my job be protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?
Yes. Most employers have granted it to donors, and they’re now required to do so. I didn’t have sufficient sick leave and wanted to protect my income as well–fortunately, my company had a shared leave program, so coworkers were kind enough to donate leave to me. You may also be able to use short-term disability insurance.
What happens if I later develop kidney failure and need a transplant myself?
In the rare event that you, as a living kidney donor, later needed a transplant, you would be given a very high priority on the kidney waiting lists, assuming you were a good surgery candidate. The UNOS national waiting lists use a point system and grant extra points to prior living donors. Instead of a typical years-long wait for a deceased-donor kidney, you would mostly likely receive one in a few months.
Could I change my mind once I start the donor evaluation?
You can change your mind at any point. Up until (and including) the very day of the surgery, you will be asked to confirm your decision. If you decide not to go ahead with the donation, your reasons will remain confidential unless you choose to discuss them.
Could an adult donate a kidney to a child?
Yes. It’s not uncommon for a parent to donate to their child—even a toddler. An adult-size kidney (about the size of a fist) can fit inside a young child’s body.
How soon could I have a beer or other alcohol after donating?
There are no donor-related restrictions other than avoiding alcohol while taking painkillers.
Have a question you don’t see here? Let me know so I can add it.