April is the month designated to raising awareness about organ donation, which is a lifesaving option for many organ recipients—particularly those with progressive kidney disease. Of all the organ transplants in the United States, kidney transplants are the most common, with 21,000 donated in 2018 alone. Nevertheless, the number pales in comparison with the number of people in need.
Nearly 100,000 people are on the waiting list for a kidney. On average, they wait five to 10 years, depending on where they live. And each year, more than 5,000 people die because a kidney didn’t come through in time. Worse yet, a half-million Americans are on dialysis, and what most of them need is a kidney transplant. Although dialysis keeps them alive, it also keeps them tethered to a machine and, over time, it compromises their health and life expectancy.
That’s why I’ve dedicated my retirement years to raising awareness about the looming epidemic of kidney disease and the desirability of kidney donation as a treatment option—ideally, before a patient ever has to go on dialysis. This means raising awareness among healthy Americans about the feasibility of donating a kidney and giving the gift of a life to a loved one, or even a stranger.
Kidney donation is simpler and safer than ever
Over the course of my career I’ve seen vast improvements in transplantation technology. For one, donor- and recipient-matching technology has greatly improved. A donor no longer has to be a blood relative; in fact, they don’t even have to be the same blood type. One of my patients, Mick Kronman, was among the first to receive a kidney from a donor who wasn’t related by blood. The donor was his wife. Now it’s fairly common for complete strangers to donate kidneys.
Second, most transplant surgeries are now done laparoscopically, meaning hospital stays are short (1-3 days) and donors are able to return to work fairly quickly (depending on the type of work they do).
Similarly, anti-rejection drugs are better, meaning that the donated kidney is likely to serve its recipient for a long time—nearly twice as long, on average, as one from a deceased donor. (It’s also worth noting that anti-rejection drugs are for the kidney recipient, not the donor.)
In addition to lasting twice as long, a kidney from a living donor typically functions immediately. Kidney transplant patients wake up in recovery feeling as though they have their life back—sometimes for the first time in years.
The recipient’s insurance covers the cost of transplantation surgery, and some organizations will help a recipient cover their donor’s other out-of-pocket costs. Moreover, legislation is likely to be proposed that will compensate donors for lost wages, if any, following their donation. The reason: Transplantation saves millions of dollars over a lifetime on dialysis.
Prospective donors are sometimes needlessly concerned about their ability to conceive and deliver a baby following a kidney donation. They needn’t be. Living kidney donation doesn’t cause fertility problems in women or in men.
Similarly, age, tattoos, and drug or alcohol use do NOT preclude kidney donation. Donors don’t even have to live in the same city as the recipient—although they will have to travel to the recipient’s transplant center for the surgery. The key criteria in donation is health. A healthy donor of any age, and almost any lifestyle, can be considered. The donor screening process will reveal any issues that may arise.
Finally, in addition to the benefits donation heaps upon recipients, most donors report kidney donation as among the best things they’ve ever done. Along with childbirth, there is perhaps no more wonderful, satisfying feeling than being able to give the gift of life to someone who really needs it.
Best of all, you don’t have to wait until you’re dead to donate. Kidney disease threatens the lives of some 31 million Americans, and that number is expected to increase unless we reverse our rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and stress. While there is little we can do for our friends and loved ones battling other life-threatening illnesses—like heart disease and most types of cancer—there is something we can do for people battling progressive kidney disease: Donate a kidney!
For 38 years, Michael Fisher, MD, was the co-medical director of acute dialysis at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and remains the co-founder of the Santa Barbara Artificial Kidney Center. The author of “Surviving Kidney Disease: True Stories of Love, Courage, Hope, and Heroism…and a Roadmap for Prevention,” Fisher has helped hundreds of patients prevail against ESRD—End Stage Renal Disease—the result of Chronic Kidney Disease. Now his mission is to help as many people as possible avoid kidney disease through healthy diet and lifestyle choices and to help those with the disease lead healthy, normal lives through the gift of kidney transplantation.
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