Written by Zoe Engels, Blog Contributor
As of March 2022, there are 106,080 people on the transplant waiting list, but living organ donors can help shorten this wait. More than 6,5000 transplants were made possible by living donors in 2021 alone.
What is living organ donation?
Living organ donation is when a living person donates an organ or part of an organ to another person through transplantation. It is most common for living organ donors to donate one of their kidneys or part of their liver, though it is also possible to donate part of a lung, pancreas, or the intestines.
Living organ donors can spare recipients of a long, uncertain wait. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite kidney disease as the tenth most common cause of death in the United States. According to a 2019 article by Lisa Emmott, the Executive Director of the National Kidney Donation Organization, those on the waitlist for kidneys in the U.S. face a wait of three to 10 years for a deceased donor kidney, and this kidney shortage kills approximately 43,000 people annually. However, with kidney transplants from living donors, recipients may get their new organ before they need to begin the long, difficult experience of dialysis. The University of California San Francisco reports, those on dialysis face a fifteen to twenty percent mortality rate within the first year and a five-year survival rate of under fifty percent.
Lisa Emmott knows just how significant this wait time is. Her husband received a kidney transplant from a living donor in 2017. He was able to have the transplant before undergoing dialysis.
In the 2019 article, Lisa writes, “In a world where hurt and suffering often make the evening news, living donors freely give away a part of themselves to make another whole. Ironically, they often see themselves as the ones receiving a gift.”
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, living organ donation also has a greater transplant success rate than deceased organ donation, meaning organs like kidneys from living donors work longer on average than those from deceased donors. Ninety-eight percent of transplanted kidneys from living donors still work one year after transplant. For deceased organ donation, that number is approximately 95 percent, as found in a study published by Dove Medical Press in 2017.
How does it work?
There are different types of living organ donation. Directed donation is when the donor knows the recipient and is donating to a specific person such as a blood relative, spouse, friend, or co-worker. Non-directed donation is when someone wants to donate but does not know (and may never know) the recipient.
If a potential donor’s organ is non-compatible with the recipient, some medical treatments may be an option. Alternatively, through kidney paired donation, a computer matches donors and recipients to more compatible pairs. The latter–in which a donation “chain” is created–was the experience Lisa and her husband had. The National Kidney Registry’s program pools mismatched donor/recipient pairs and uses an algorithm to find the most compatible pairs, creating an even exchange of organs across the nation.
If you’re thinking about becoming a living organ donor, it’s very important to meet and discuss this decision with transplant hospital staff. They will conduct an evaluation as living organ donation is not a good fit for everyone, particularly depending on any health conditions the donor may have.
For Sam Beyda, NKDO donor member, becoming a living organ donor was the best fit and a choice he felt passionately about.
“Whenever people hear I donated a kidney, they look at me like I'm crazy—as if I'm an alien,” he said via email. “In truth, nothing in my everyday life has changed since donation.”
He added, “I've spoken to hundreds of potential donors and most share the feeling I had before donation. They can’t point to a specific reason that they want to donate, it just feels important to them and like something they should do.”
Learn more about living organ donation on our Student Resources page, here!