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Living Donors Share the Value of a Priceless Gift

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Due to a shortage of deceased-donor organs, living donation programs are a great way to meet the need for organs among those awaiting a transplant. Thanks to treatment advances by the UAB Medicine Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI) – along with a special program that helps donors navigate the transplant process – living kidney donation is easier than ever.

Living donation enables healthy people to donate a kidney to someone in need of a transplant. A living donor may be a relative, spouse, a close friend, or even a stranger to the recipient. To qualify as a living-kidney donor, donors must be in good health and without any history of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or other major illness. Each potential donor also undergoes a complete donor evaluation, done on an outpatient basis.

Right now, the supply of organs from deceased donors does not meet demand. For this reason, the CTI increasingly relies on living donation to meet the needs of individuals with kidney failure. The CTI has made significant treatment advances that help overcome some types of donor-recipient incompatibility, making more kidney transplants possible than ever before.

Michael Hanaway, MD, surgical director of the CTI’s kidney transplant program, says greater awareness about the processes involved also helps potential donors deal with concerns about living donation.

“Donors, understandably, have a lot of concerns and questions,” Dr. Hanaway says. “How much pain is involved? How long will recovery take? What will this mean for my health years from now? The main point that anyone considering a living donation should know is that we are extremely selective and careful to ensure that there is very little likelihood a donation will create any long-term problems. Our rigorous process of tests and screenings beforehand, and decades of experience in performing kidney transplants, provide a high level of care for both donors and recipients.”

Highly Motivated Donors

For many donors, concerns about the transplant process itself are outweighed by the value of donation. Afterward, donors often have a greater understanding of the difference they made and the lives they changed.

“Living donors are very motivated in the first place, or else they wouldn’t go through it,” Dr. Hanaway says. “Even considering their initial worries, I would say, almost without exception, that when I see them again, they are happy they did it. With other procedures, patients who undergo surgery do so for some benefit to themselves, either because they want to or need to. But a living donor does this wholly for the benefit of another. It’s selfless. When they see how dramatically it affects the recipient – that the new organ makes them basically a different person in terms of their health – then donors have a deeper appreciation for the gift they have given.”

The care teams at the CTI witness many different donor/recipient relationships in the program, such as those between family members, married couples, and friends. Some of the more remarkable stories involve donors who give to someone they don’t know well, if at all.

“They truly feel like the donation is something they should do, not just what they can do,” Dr. Hanaway says. “That’s a truly altruistic donor. It’s a really special thing. Many of them have expressed that they are surprised that more people, if they are healthy, aren’t becoming living donors.”

Navigating the Process

Managing the living donor role does present challenges. Donors need help navigating the complexities and medical requirements of the donation process, and they must have care and support after donating a kidney. To overcome these barriers, the CTI established the Living Donor Navigator Program, which provides the advocate and the patient with educational materials and other resources to help them be more comfortable starting conversations and spreading awareness.

The other component of the Living Donor Navigator Program is the navigation aspect itself. Potential donors are assigned a living donor navigator who guides them through the process. These trained UAB Medicine employees help potential donors by answering questions, assisting them with required paperwork, setting medical appointments, and ensuring that donors have the support needed during and after surgery. In addition, navigators train and assist the living donor advocates. The program is modeled after the highly successful navigator program developed by the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

“Among patients on dialysis having treatments three days a week, many of them tell us in their evaluations that the treatment days are their hardest days,” Dr. Hanaway says. “These patients usually don’t have the energy, strength, or resources to find a living donor. And very often it comes down to a simple, human matter, which is that they don’t know how to ask someone for such a huge gift. Our navigator program takes the burden off the patient who needs an organ by having a friend or a champion act on their behalf. Another benefit is when someone who wanted to donate an organ but isn’t a match, then that person can become the patient’s advocate in the campaign to find a donor.”

A Priceless Gift

Organ donation has been called a priceless gift, yet many people involved say that the rewards for the donor seem equal to the benefit to the recipient. Patients, families, and even the health care professionals all share this insight.

“It’s always amazing when someone who’s been on dialysis for a long time receives an organ from a living donor then say they feel like different person,” Dr. Hanaway says. “Some patients have told me that they haven’t felt that good in 20 years, and that’s just hours after surgery, well before the transplant has taken full effect. When we see this change, it makes all of us on the care team feel good about what we are doing. And of course, none of it is possible without the living donor.”

Click here to learn more about UAB Medicine’s Living Donor Kidney Program and whether you can be a donor.

Click here to learn more about UAB Medicine’s Living Donor Navigator Program.

Other Ways to Contribute

If you are interested in learning about how you can support UAB Medicine’s transplantation program through philanthropy, please reach out to Director of Development Christian Smith at 205-623-9772 or ChristianNSmith@uabmc.edu.