Decades ago, if you needed a kidney transplant, you had to find a donor who was both genetically compatible and willing to donate one of their kidneys. Usually, this was a close relative, like a sibling, a parent or a child, but there was still no guarantee that any of them would be compatible.
Today, and with Florida Hospital’s Living Donor Program, there are new ways to bring hope. Christina Burnett RN-BC, CCTC, Living Donor Transplant Coordinator for the Florida Hospital Transplant Institute, explains how the living donor program increases access to kidney transplants, and therefore, saves more lives.
Dramatic Improvements in Kidney Transplant Options
Improvements in anti-rejection therapies have expanded the population of potential donors for most recipients to include spouses, friends, co-workers, and altruistic donors who are compatible based on blood type.
Still, many patients have had difficulty finding a living donor among their friends and families, who are willing to be a donor when a deceased organ wasn't available. So, in 1984, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) was created as a non-profit organization to develop a system that made it possible for deceased donors and recipients from across the U.S. to be matched based on blood type, tissue type, medical urgency, waiting time, expected benefit, geography and other medical criteria.
The Impact of the Living Donor Program
Burnett says that the Living Donor program has made a substantial impact on the lives of many Central Floridians since its establishment in 1973.
“It's hard to imagine waiting on the list for a transplant and not knowing when the call will come,” she said. “Living donation opens the door for a healthy donor to give someone the gift of life and shortens that waiting time tremendously.”
Despite the growth of living donor programs, however, the demand for new kidneys far outweighs the supply. In fact, the National Kidney Foundation estimates that there are more than 100,000 people in the U.S. who need a kidney transplant and are waiting for a suitable donor (as of January 2016), and every month, 3,000 more patients are added to the list. On average, patients in the U.S. wait an average of 3.6 years before undergoing a kidney transplant.
What To Expect As a Kidney Donor
For donors, whether they come in with a recipient in need or simply want to donate a kidney for altruistic reasons, the preparation focuses mainly on testing and education.
"First, we want to make sure the donor is healthy enough to live a normal life with just one kidney," Burnett said. "So we make sure the potential donor doesn't have certain conditions, like diabetes, that would cause problems with the kidneys. We also do compatibility testing that involves checking blood type and a complete medical evaluation, including labs, urine tests, CT scan and evaluations by the living donor medical team.
She added that they also focus on making sure the donor understands what it means to be a kidney donor and that they truly want to make the donation.
"My role is to be an advocate for the donor, and really the whole team has that attitude. We want to make sure that the donor is doing it for the right reasons, like helping a loved one or even donating the kidney for altruistic reasons, which a lot of people do."
The procedure to remove the donor kidney typically requires two or three days in the hospital and the donor can be back to work in as little as three weeks or up to six weeks for people who have physically strenuous jobs. While the recipient's insurance covers the medical costs, other costs like travel or lost work are the responsibility of the donor.
“… Motivated Only By The Desire To Give.”
For Burnett, her work is rewarding because, every day, she interacts with inspirational people as they prepare to make a substantial sacrifice, motivated only by the desire to give.
"I'm often amazed at how many people are willing to go through surgery to donate one of their kidneys to a family member," she said. "And when I think about how some of these donors are willing to go through that for a friend or even an acquaintance, without having a close relationship with that person, it's really powerful."
Learn more about the Living Donor Program at Florida Hospital.