Live Kidney Donation Frequently Asked Questions

Read answers to frequently asked questions about live kidney donation.

What is live kidney donation?
Live kidney donation is the donation of a kidney from a live person to a patient whose native kidneys are no longer working. Sharp has a living donor team dedicated to facilitating and walking patients and their donors through the process of transplantation.

Living kidney donation is rightly named the "gift of life." Without a healthy living donor, the potential kidney recipient waits years for a deceased kidney donation. Donors are able to make an immediate and dramatic impact on another person's life. There are tremendous physical and emotional benefits for kidney recipients once they are off dialysis.

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What are the advantages of live kidney donation?
Live kidney donation has increasingly become more common due to the very long waiting time for a deceased kidney. Currently, the wait time in San Diego is three to six years, depending on your blood type. Other advantages include:

  • Kidneys from a living donor usually function more quickly because there is less delay between removing the organ and transplanting it
  • Living kidney transplants typically last longer than transplants from a deceased donor
  • The ability to donate a kidney to a person in need can be a very positive experience
  • The transplant surgery can be scheduled for a time that is convenient for both the recipient and donor
  • Transplants can greatly improve a recipient's quality of life; if it is able to happen more quickly for them, they will realize more of a benefit

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What are the different types of live kidney donation?

  • Living related kidney donors: A blood relative of the person who is waiting for a kidney transplant such as a sibling, parent or child.
  • Kidney donor chain: A nondirected, or altruistic, kidney donor volunteers to donate a kidney to an unknown recipient who has an incompatible donor. That recipient’s donor then donates to a different recipient who also has an incompatible donor. This starts a chain that can continue indefinitely. This helps to increase the number of transplants that occur throughout the nation and also to reduce the waiting time for the recipient.
  • Living unrelated kidney donors: A person who is emotionally connected to the person who is waiting for a kidney transplant such as a friend or a spouse.
  • Paired kidney donation: A donor/recipient pair who are not compatible are matched to another donor/recipient pair who are also not compatible. 

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Who can be a live donor?

Lorena and Monique
Lorena (left) with her kidney recipient and new friend Monique and Monique's aunt, Ria, who donated a kidney in honor of her niece.
A live donor can be a family member or a friend. The donor must be in good health and not have high blood pressure or diseases like diabetes, cancer and kidney, heart or blood disease. Also, the donor's blood type much match the recipient's.

A crossmatch between the recipient and the donor will be completed to determine if the donor is compatible. This is a test that determines blood compatibility by mixing blood samples from the donor and the recipient. A positive blood crossmatch means the donor and recipient are not compatible for transplantation. A negative blood crossmatch means they are compatible and the transplant workup may proceed.

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What are the risks to the living donor?
Though the donor will only have one kidney operating after the procedure, the risks are minimal — with the remaining kidney taking on the responsibilities of both. The donor will experience some pain and discomfort after the procedure, but will otherwise be able to resume normal activity with no lifestyle changes. As with any major surgery, there is always a risk of complications.

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What if I have potential donors?
Have your donors come to the evaluation process, if possible. If they meet the minimum requirements for donation, they may be able to have some initial lab work done on the same day as the recipient’s evaluation. This also is a good opportunity to thoroughly discuss the kidney donation process with the potential donor. Potential donors living at a distance can usually be tested near their home and then come to San Diego for the surgery. Talk to your coordinator about arrangements.

After lab test results are received, Sharp Transplant Center will determine who is best suited based on genetic match and the individual’s health and willingness. The selected donor will need to be evaluated medically and psychosocially. If that donor is approved, surgery will be scheduled. Several potential donors may need to be evaluated before a suitable donor is identified.

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What if the recipient and potential donor are not compatible?

  • A kidney exchange consists of two or more donor/recipient pairs whose blood types or blood cross matches are not compatible. In the first pair, Recipient 1 is not compatible with Donor 1. In the second pair, Recipient 2 is not compatible with Donor 2. However, Donor 1 is compatible with Recipient 2 and Donor 2 is compatible with Recipient 1.
  • Matching occurs within our transplant center and with many other transplant centers in the United States. The donor kidney may be shipped to corresponding hospitals or the donors may be asked to travel. This is discussed at the initial education session and when a match is found.
  • Sharp Kidney and Pancreas Transplant participates in a Living Donor Kidney Exchange Program. Many patients come to Sharp with kidney donors only to discover that they are incompatible. The Living Donor Kidney Exchange Program involves the matching and exchange of kidneys between parties who are compatible with each other.
  • Upon comprehensive evaluation by the kidney transplant team, compatible willing donor/recipient pairs are matched for a kidney exchange.

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What is the evaluation process for live donor transplants?

Rita and Oscar
Oscar and his wife and donor, Rita, following kidney transplant surgery.
Following an initial review, kidney transplant donors interested in live kidney donation will partake in the following evaluation process:

1. The donor’s blood is tested against the recipient’s blood to determine compatibility.

2. If compatible, a complete set of blood tests are done to rule out the possibility of disease.

3. If the above-mentioned tests are normal, the donor will be evaluated by an independent living donor advocate who is also a nephrologist, and will also be seen by the transplant social worker.

4. Once cleared by the living donor advocate, the donor will be scheduled for additional testing, including chest and abdominal X-ray, a MRI/MRA of the kidneys and EKGs.

5. If the testing is normal, the donor will meet with the surgeon.

6. The donor will have several presurgical appointments approximately one week before the surgery; the day before the surgery, donors will follow a special diet.

7. The donor and the recipient will be admitted to the hospital on the morning of the surgery.

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Who pays for the donor’s surgery?
The recipient's insurance policy typically covers donor costs. There may be circumstances, however, in which this is not the case. If this should occur, Sharp Transplant Center may be able to assist. These situations will be discussed on a case by case basis with the transplant staff prior to surgery or testing.

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Are living donors compensated for their kidneys?
No, compensation for organ donation is illegal.

Find a San Diego Kidney Transplant Surgeon
To find a Sharp-affiliated doctor, search for a San Diego kidney transplant surgeon or call 1-800-82-SHARP (1-800-827-4277), Monday through Friday 8 am to 6 pm.

For More Transplant Information
To find general information about transplant, visit Transplantation in Adult Health or read the Transplant News archive. If you are interested in becoming a living donor, fill-out and submit our living kidney donor intake form.