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Woman with curly dark brown hair, medium tan skin and gold blouse, smiling into the camera, sitting in a kitchen.
Woman with curly dark brown hair, medium tan skin and gold blouse, smiling into the camera, sitting in a kitchen.

What Does it Take to Be a Living Kidney Donor?

How to Donate Your Kidney While You’re Alive

The first-ever kidney transplant was a kidney from a living donor in 1954.

They didn't have deceased donations at the time, or immunosuppression (anti-rejection) medication, so the transplant happened between identical twins — one with kidney disease and one without.

"Unfortunately we're all not walking around with twins, but that's how the field was born," says Northwestern Medicine Transplant Surgeon Satish N. Nadig, MD, PhD. "Now, a living donor kidney transplant is one of the most common types of transplants we do today. It's the gold standard of transplants and has the best outcomes. It really saves someone's life immediately."

Filling a Great Need With Living Donors

More than 100,000 people are on the national organ transplant waiting list, and 17 people die every day waiting for organ transplants. While 60% of people in the U.S. are signed up to be deceased organ donors, there is still a serious need for organs.

In 2021, only 18,699 organs from deceased donors were available nationwide.

Living organ donations, a surgical procedure to remove an organ from a living person to place in another living person who has a nonfunctioning organ, help to lessen this gap.

A kidney transplant is the most common living donor transplant performed, as your body can function normally with only one kidney. You can also do a living donation of up to 70% of your liver and it will grow back.

The benefits of living kidney donation include:

  • Tissue from the donated kidney survives longer, helping to make the transplant more successful  with better kidney function
  • Fewer complications than receiving a kidney from a deceased donor

Who Can Be a Living Kidney Donor?

Living organ donors make roughly 6,000 transplants possible every year. Potential living donors must be in good health, physically and emotionally.

"We are looking for someone who is going to do well with surgery and one kidney," says Dr. Nadig. "We know that weight, diet and lifestyle can impact people's organs, so we make criteria to ensure that people will do well after donation."

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Having a healthy body mass index (BMI)
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with healthy diet and exercise habits
  • Having a healthy blood pressure
  • Not having metabolic disorders like diabetes

In addition, kidney donors need to be older than 18. As a potential living donor, you'll go through a confidential evaluation process to determine the health of your organs, emotional readiness and education around organ donation.

"You don't have to know someone who needs a kidney to donate a kidney," says Northwestern Medicine Nephrologist John J. Friedewald, MD. "If you're someone who has always wanted to help someone out and is healthy, donating a kidney is a great way to do that."

What does the living kidney donor evaluation process involve?

You will be evaluated by a team of health care professionals. If you are donating your kidney anonymously — in what's called a non-directed donation — your team will typically have no interaction or association with the potential organ recipient's care team to avoid any conflicts of interest.

Your evaluation may include:

  • A psychological evaluation to ensure that you are making an well-informed decision about donating your organ
  • Medical evaluation, including:
    • Going over your complete medical history with a clinician
    • Physical examination
    • Tests to ensure that your heart and lungs are healthy, including a chest X-ray and electrocardiogram (EKG).
    • Testing to analyze your kidney health and the blood supply to your kidneys, which may include a urine test and a radiology exam
    • Blood tests to determine your organ compatibility with a potential recipient and to check for other diseases

Your evaluation will be reviewed by a donor panel of health care clinicians — from social workers to nurses to surgeons to nephrologists — to make sure that you can safely donate your kidney.

"If you're a healthy person and want to save a life, you can start the process of becoming a living kidney donor," says Dr. Friedewald. "We can help you become a non-directed donor and show you how one kidney can make a great impact on many lives."

Start here to see if you qualify for being a living kidney donor.