A kidney transplant is the best treatment for the right patients. Find out if it’s right for you.

What is a kidney transplant?

During a kidney transplant, another person’s healthy kidney is implanted in your body to take over the work of your failing kidneys. Healthy kidneys can come from either a deceased donor (someone who has died and donated their organs) or a living donor. Although most of us are born with two healthy functioning kidneys, we only need one healthy kidney to live.

People with kidney transplants often live longer, have better health and a better quality of life than people on dialysis. You can be evaluated and listed for kidney transplant before you even start dialysis treatment. Whether you’ve just been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease or you’ve been on dialysis for years, it’s a good idea to look into kidney transplant. If you’d like to learn more about transplant as a treatment option, sign up for our free Next Step Transplant class.

If you’ve recently received a transplant, consider meeting one-on-one with one of our dietitians to learn more about the transplant diet.

Steps to take to get a kidney transplant

  1. Speak to your nephrologist. Your nephrologist will refer you to one of the three Seattle transplant centers (Swedish, Virginia Mason, UW Medical Center), where a specialist team will evaluate your condition and determine if you’re a good candidate.
  2. Complete medical testing. You’ll undergo blood tests to find your specific blood and tissue types, tests to see if your heart and blood vessels are healthy, cancer screening tests and a dental exam.
  3. Get on the transplant list. If you have passed all the tests but are unable to find a living donor, you’ll be placed on a waiting list for a deceased donor kidney. The list is kept at a national computer registry called the National Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), part of UNOS. You’ll be notified when a suitable donor kidney is available for you.

A Growing Need

More and more people need a kidney transplant.

  • Every 10 minutes, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list — and 84% of people on the list need a kidney.
  • Roughly 90,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a kidney transplant right now.
  • Two-thirds of transplanted kidneys come from deceased donors and one-third from living donors.
  • Success rates are high — after one year, 96% of deceased donor transplants and 97% of living donor transplants are still working.
  • On average, a deceased donor transplant lasts 8 to 12 years and a living donor transplant lasts 12 to 20 years.

Kidney donors

There are two ways to get a kidney — from a living donor or a deceased donor.

Living donors

A transplant from a living donor usually lasts longer than one from a deceased donor. A living donor must be 18 years old, have your same blood type, have a healthy heart and blood vessels, and pass medical tests. Often, a relative or friend agrees to donate.

If your donor is not a close enough match, the two of you could be involved in a paired kidney exchange, where you and your donor swap with another incompatible donor/patient pair. Talk to your transplant center for more information.

When you find a donor, the donor must call your transplant center to start the donation process. Medical expenses for the living donor evaluation and transplant care are paid by your insurance.

Deceased donors

Deceased donors organs come from people who have died and have chosen to donate their organs. People often note the choice when they get a driver’s license.

Once you’re approved for a transplant, your name goes on the deceased-donor transplant waiting list kept by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). When a kidney becomes available, it is matched against all patients waiting in the region.

The amount of time people wait depends on the region they live in and on their blood type — some patients are harder to match and wait longer. The wait time in the Northwest ranges from 18 months to five years.

Damon Brown “After posting my search for a kidney on Facebook, several people stepped forward. A perfect match came from a friend of my wife’s, who graciously and generously donated her kidney to me. Now that I have my new kidney, I have the energy to keep up with my wife and two young boys!”

— Damon Brown, transplant recipient

Common Questions

A transplant may allow you to live a more normal life, but it is not a cure for chronic kidney disease. Your body will always want to attack your new kidney and so you will always need to take medications — called immunosuppressants — to prevent this from happening.

The evaluation for transplant and getting all of the testing completed can take a long time. It is important to talk to your doctor about a referral to start the workup process as soon as possible. In the Pacific Northwest, the average wait time for a deceased donor kidney is 18 months to five years. Even a living donor transplant can take months to arrange.

Transplant isn’t the right treatment for everybody. It’s not right for you if you have severe heart or blood vessel disease, incurable cancer or an untreatable infection. You also won’t be eligible if you use tobacco or abuse drugs or alcohol.

Learn more about kidney transplants at our free Next Step Transplant class. Or, visit the Northwest Renal Network to find out more about kidney transplants in the Pacific Northwest.

You’ll be asleep under general anesthesia for the entire procedure, which takes three to four hours. The surgeon will inspect the donor kidney closely before implanting it on the front side of your body, just below the hip bone. The donor kidney is then sewn to an existing artery and vein, and connected to your bladder. In most cases, your diseased kidneys do not need to be removed.

Getting a kidney transplant involves having a lengthy surgery and that is why you need a thorough medical evaluation. Your transplant team will discuss possible risks with you.

After the surgery, you’ll probably remain in the hospital for four to five days. Doctors will want to limit your exposure to anything that could cause infection and make sure your new kidney is working.

Your new kidney’s function will be closely monitored by looking at your blood and urine. Slowly, your initial liquids-only diet will start to include more solid food. You may feel sore around the surgical site and require pain relievers. Many kidney transplant recipients are able to get out of bed and move around the day after the transplant, and many are back to work and other normal activities after two to three months.

You’ll be very closely monitored in the first year following the surgery. After that, you will have tests every three months to ensure your new kidney is still working.

The body naturally tries to reject things that are foreign to it. To avoid this, your doctor will prescribe medicine — immunosuppressants — that reduces the chance of your body rejecting the new kidney. It’s important that you stick to the exact dosage your doctor orders. Many kidney transplant failures are due to patients not taking their drugs correctly.

Your transplant team will educate you about recognizing signs of rejection.

The transplant team, including doctors, nurses, social workers and dietitians will advise you on how to take care of your new kidney. Some general guidelines:

  • Take your anti-rejection (immunosuppressant) drugs. Follow the exact dose and schedule your doctor gave you.
  • Attend all follow-up appointments and complete all lab tests.
  • Guard yourself against infection by washing your hands, getting immunizations and regular dental care.
  • Have regular cancer screening checks and wear sunscreen.
  • Get regular exercise and eat a healthy diet. Your risk of heart and blood vessel disease remains high. Eat a low-salt diet and exercise five times a week for 30 minutes. Control your blood pressure with frequent checks at home. If you’re diabetic, make sure to control your blood sugar, because transplant medications can raise it. Meet with a dietitian for counseling on a heart-healthy diet. Find recipes suitable for your new transplant diet and access other nutrition and fitness tips.

Take some time to consider how to bring up the subject. Educate yourself about what a living transplant involves so you’re able to answer any questions they may have.

Share your story and explain how your kidneys are failing. Give prospective donors time to absorb the information and get back to you. If they don’t want to or are unable to donate, ask them to spread the word. A friend of a friend might be willing and able to give you a kidney. If you or your potential donor want to learn more about living donation, come to our free Next Step Transplant class.

Or, have your donor contact your transplant program. Each transplant program has a living donor coordinator who can answer their questions about donation.

If you’re just starting out in the transplant process, come to our free Next Step Transplant class to learn more.

Living kidney donation

Things to consider

Why donate a kidney?

  • You are giving someone the gift of years of a healthier life.
  • A transplant from a living donor usually lasts longer than one from a deceased donor.
  • The wait for a deceased donor transplant can mean years on dialysis.

Who can donate?

  • Anyone over 18 years old who is healthy and not at risk for kidney disease.
  • Donors must match the patient well enough for the transplant to be successful.
  • If you don’t match, you may still be able to help the patient get a transplant through a donor exchange.

What are the steps if I want to donate?

  • Call the patient’s transplant center.
  • You’ll be asked to provide a medical history and will undergo tests and exams to make sure you are healthy enough to donate.
  • You’ll receive education and be evaluated to make sure you’re making the right decision and not feeling pressured.

What’s the surgery like?

  • In surgery, which is paid for by the patient’s insurance, the kidney is usually removed laparoscopically which means small incisions and less risk.
  • After surgery you’ll be in the hospital for three to four days.
  • You should be back to regular activity in four to six weeks.
  • Research shows that donors live as long as anyone else.

Be an organ donor

One organ donor can save eight lives. If someone you know is interested in becoming an organ donor, tell them to visit United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) to find out how to join their state’s organ donor registry and get a donor card. If that person wants to donate a kidney directly to you, then speak to your nephrologist about tests to see if the kidney is a good match for you.