Thinking About Being a Living Donor? Here’s What You Need to Know

Every April is National Donate Life Month, celebrating the over 1 million organ transplant recipients in the U.S., their donors, and the estimated 100,000 people still waiting for a transplant. One of the easiest ways to participate is to register as an organ donor if you haven’t already. A donation after death could save as many as eight lives. But there’s another way to honor National Donate Life Month—learning about living donation.  

If you’re a healthy adult, donating one kidney or part of your liver can save someone else’s life with minimal impact to your own.  

What Is Living Donation? 

Most organs are donated by people who have died. But over 6,000 organs each year come from living donors, giving away either one kidney or about half of their liver to a family member, friend or complete stranger in need. Amazingly, only one kidney can do the job of two, removing all the waste from your body. And your liver regenerates itself, growing back to its normal size within just a few months. 

Kidney donations are more common, as 85% of people on the organ transplant list in the U.S. are in need of a new kidney. Usually, the transplant recipient’s insurance covers the cost of surgery.  

Federal programs are also available to help donors afford the cost of any travel and time off work. Additionally, in New York, the state allows up to a $10,000 tax deduction to cover unreimbursed costs of travel, lodging and lost wages; NY State S.1594/A146A provides state reimbursement to living organ donors from New York State for expenses incurred as result of donation. 

There are three main types of living donations: 

  • Directed donation happens when your liver or kidney goes to a specific person you know. 
  • Non-directed donation happens when your organ goes to an anonymous stranger who is medically compatible. 
  • Paired donation. In this situation, your organ is not a good match for the person to whom you want to donate. Instead, you pair with another set of people somewhere else in the same position, and “swap” donations. Paired donations can happen between two families or an entire chain of people to ensure maximum compatibility. 

Sometimes other tissues or partial organs, such as the lung, can be donated, but these situations are still rare. You can also donate blood and bone marrow. 

Qualifications for Being a Donor 

You don’t have to be a young athlete in perfect health to be an organ donor. However, potential donors do need to undergo multiple screenings to ensure they and their organs are healthy enough for donation. These screenings include: 

  • Blood type and tissue compatibility with the transplant recipient 
  • Comprehensive medical testing to rule out any conditions or infectious diseases that could affect your ability to donate or the health of the organ, once transplanted 
  • Imaging to ensure the organ is healthy 
  • Psychiatric evaluation to ensure your mental health is strong enough to withstand the process 
  • Social work evaluation to assess your finances, social support and other issues that could impact your ability to go through with the surgery 

If you are planning to donate to a family member or friend and are found to be not compatible but otherwise qualified, the transplant team may recommend non-directed donation or paired donation.  

Recovery After Organ Donation 

Donating your kidney or part of your liver is a big decision. It is also a major surgery. While these surgeries are safe, there is always a slight chance of complications, just like with any other major surgery. Common risks and complications include: 

  • Bile duct problems for liver donors 
  • Bleeding 
  • Blood clots 
  • Hypertension for kidney donors 
  • Infections 
  • Intestinal problems for liver donors 
  • Pain 

In very rare cases, surgery can lead to liver failure (for liver donors) or death. However, most complications are rare and donors do not need any long-term medications. 

In general, kidney donors can expect to stay in the hospital one to two days, while liver donors usually stay two to five days. Most people can return to work within a few weeks and resume all their normal activities within two to four weeks. 

Weill Cornell Medicine has the only liver transplant program in the country that is fully robotic for the donor. This method cuts recovery time in half for people donating, and outcomes over the past five years have had a 100% one-year survival rate.  

Want to learn more about living donation or find out if you could be a good donor candidate? Talk to a Weill Cornell Medicine provider about your options.