Asking someone to donate a kidney is not easy, however, finding a living donor is the best course of action for people who need a kidney transplant.
"There are currently more than 122,000 people on the transplant waiting list. More than 101,000 of those are waiting for a kidney," said Richard Knight, M.D., a kidney transplant surgeon with the Houston Methodist J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center. "Sometimes patients can wait three to four years or more for a new kidney, and that causes a great deal of stress and anxiety."
Knight says a transplant through living donation can usually be done in about three to four months. Because donors receive a full workup, doctors are able to learn more about their medical history and their kidney function, therefore improving the chances of a better outcome and longer survival for the recipient. Despite this advantage, the number of people donating kidneys has dropped from 6,600 in 2004 to just over 5,550 in 2014.
"If a person is healthy, living with one kidney is safe," Knight said. "Once the operation and the healing process are over, life should get back to normal. This is not to say kidney problems won't arise in the future, however, donating a kidney does not cause one to develop kidney problems later in life."
While on the waiting list, patients undergo dialysis treatments. These treatments help a failing kidney carry out the functions of a healthy kidney by removing salt and extra water from the body, keeping the levels of potassium, sodium and bicarbonate at safe levels, and helping to regulate blood pressure. While effective, staying on dialysis for an extended period of time can affect the outcome of a kidney transplant.
"Getting a transplant without having to go on dialysis greatly increases your chance of long-term survival," Knight said. "Studies have shown that the best patient and kidney outcomes occur in those who are transplanted prior to initiation of dialysis."
On average, a living donor kidney can last anywhere from 12 to 20 years, while a deceased kidney is between eight and 12 years.
"With living donation, we take the kidney out, walk it across the hall, prepare it and transplant it into the patient, so the chance of damage to the kidney is relatively minor," Knight said. "Today, using sophisticated preservation techniques we can safely store a deceased donor kidney for up to 40 hours before transplantation."
While living donation is significantly better for long-term survival, it's not always easy for a recipient to ask family members or friends to sacrifice one of their kidneys. Knight recommends finding an organization that can help with the process of finding a donor.
"About 5 percent of patients on the transplant list will die each year while waiting for a kidney from a deceased donor," Knight said. "You can live a perfectly normal life with one kidney, and in most cases, people who love you are more than willing to give you a chance at a better life by donating their kidney."
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