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Can I Become a Living Organ Donor?

Becoming a living organ donor is one of the most selfless things a person can do. In 2023, 6,953 lives were saved thanks to living donors. However, more than 100,000 people are still on the national transplant waiting list, with 86% of those people in need of a kidney. 

Those on the transplant waiting list can potentially avoid the long wait times for organs from a deceased donor if a living donor is available. Living organ donations have medical advantages as well. 

“We know from years of research that living donor organs last longer and do better than deceased organ transplants,” says Shalei Valentine, BSN, the Living Donor Transplant Coordinator at University of Utah Health. “Deceased donor kidney transplants last about 10 to 15 years on average, while living kidney donor transplants last 15 to 20 years on average.”

Who Can Donate

Living donors can be biologically related to the recipient, but they don’t have to be. Spouses, friends, and even complete strangers can be candidates for becoming a living donor as long as they have a compatible blood type.

Donation is still possible even if donors have an incompatible blood type with their intended recipient. Many facilities, including the University of Utah, have paired exchange programs, where a donor/recipient pair who are incompatible are matched with another donor/recipient pair who are also incompatible, essentially “trading” donors.

The criteria for becoming a living donor are: 

  • Age. You must be at least 18 years old. 
  • Overall health. Donors must be in good physical and mental health. Conditions that would disqualify someone include cancer, diabetes, and uncontrolled high blood pressure.
  • Being informed. Fully understanding the organ donation process and the risks and benefits can help you make an informed decision.

Organs that can be donated from a living donor include: 

Tissues that can be donated from a living donor include: 

  • Bone marrow
  • Blood products
  • Placenta
  • Umbilical tissues
  • Amniotic tissues

The Screening Process

Deciding to become a living donor is a big deal for both donor and recipient. Doctors and program coordinators need to ensure they do a thorough evaluation so that the health of both parties isn’t jeopardized. From start to finish, the process can take eight to 12 weeks.

“Donors will be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team that includes a surgeon, nephrologist, social worker, dietician, pharmacist, and independent living donor advocate,” Valentine says. “They are also assigned a designated nurse coordinator who will work closely with the potential donor as they navigate the process.”

After expressing a willingness to donate, you will begin extensive health evaluations, including: 

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Imaging tests such as a CT scan, electrocardiogram (EKG), and chest x-rays to ensure organs are healthy
  • Cancer screenings such as a pap smear, mammogram, and colonoscopy, depending on your age and gender
  • A full physical
  • A psychosocial evaluation

Surgery and Recovery

After completing all the health evaluations and determining you are eligible to become a living donor, you will be scheduled for surgery. 

In honor of such a selfless act, you should feel supported physically, emotionally, and financially during the entire donation process as well as your recovery.

Physical Support

Most donors stay in the hospital for a night or two after surgery and then go home to finish recovery. Total recovery time will depend on your individual circumstances, but people who work desk jobs can usually go back to work within two weeks. Those who work more physically demanding jobs will likely need a longer recovery time, closer to six to 12 weeks.

Most people can resume driving within a couple of weeks and can return to pre-donation activities, including heavy lifting, within six to 12 weeks.

After donating an organ, you must commit to a healthy lifestyle and have regular check-ups with your doctor.

Emotional Support

Licensed social workers and mental health professionals are available to provide emotional support for donors, and you can also find support groups for living donors to hear others’ experiences. 

“Making the decision to become a living donor can be a stressful one, and we want all donors to feel supported throughout the evaluation process and beyond,” Valentine says. “Being able to talk with someone who has donated an organ has proven extremely helpful for potential donors.”

Financial Support

While your recipient’s insurance will likely cover your evaluation, tests, and surgery, other expenses may need to be covered. Talk with your team to learn about financial resources that are available to cover things like lost wages, travels costs, lodging, and dependent care.

“Being a living organ donor is a very rewarding endeavor, knowing that your gift has dramatically improved or saved someone’s life,” Valentine says. “Money should never be a reason why someone can’t donate an organ.” 

Getting Started

The most common reason people decide to become a living donor is because a loved one is in need. But you may choose to become an altruistic donor and give an organ to someone who needs it, even if you don’t know them. 

Regardless of your reason for becoming a donor, you can get the process started by filling out this questionnaire via University of Utah Health or search for transplant centers all over the country on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network website.