I’m not a medical person; I know what I know from my own experience and from talking to other donors. Here’s my advice, anyway.
1. Make contact. If you don’t already have a recipient in mind, you can talk to your local transplant hospital, and staff there can choose a donor or donor chain for your kidney. Or you can find a particular person to donate to through a matchmaker or website.
2. Educate yourself about donation. It may scare the pants off your family and friends that you want to do this, and a little knowledge can go a long way toward easing their fears, which will make your life a lot simpler, trust me.
Some facts that helped the people in my life are:
- Your second kidney is generally not a backup for your first kidney. If something goes wrong, whether you have one kidney or two, you’re about to have zero, because they nearly always live or die as a system. (The exception is injury. Intense physical sports can cause injury to one kidney. If you love participating in football, mountain biking, etc., kidney donation may not be for you.)
- With two kidneys, a healthy person has 3 to 4 times the renal function s/he needs. With one kidney, you still have more than you need. You are not forever weakened by donating a kidney. In fact, in a recent study, kidney donors lived just as long or longer than a control group of similarly healthy two-kidney people.
- A small percentage of people are born with one kidney. Most never know.
- People cannot live on dialysis indefinitely. You are saving someone’s life, not just making it better.
- Donors are tested for all kinds of stuff. You will know more about your health after this process than most people do, and you might find out something that will save your life.
- If you are not healthier than the average person, the doctors will not let you donate your kidney.
- It doesn’t cost you anything to donate your kidney. The transplant center will assign you a coordinator and/or social worker who will help with the details. The recipient’s insurance will nearly always pay your medical costs, including testing. (If not, talk to your transplant coordinator about options for grants.) If you have to travel, there are grants that will cover those costs. Mine was through the National Living Donor Assistance Center. Talk to your job about short-term disability insurance for your time away from work.
3. Be persistent. The medical people want to make sure that you really want to do this, and so it may take a little persistence to get all the tests you need scheduled and to keep everything on track for your transplant. Which is an understatement.
4. Be patient. No one is in any kind of hurry, strange as it may seem. Also, the transplant staff may treat you as though you are potentially unbalanced or possibly donating for profit, particularly if you are donating to a stranger. That is because their job is to screen out people who are unbalanced or donating for profit. See #3.
5. Keep your eyes and ears open. Medical tests can be pretty interesting when you know you (probably) aren’t sick; ask questions, and you’ll learn some cool stuff about your body. Take in the full waiting room experience, too, if you have any doubt about the importance of what you are doing.
6. If you don’t match the person you test for, don’t walk away. Sign up for a paired donation with your person (I donate to your friend; you donate to mine), or donate to a stranger. You’ll never regret it.
7. Expect to be amazed. Yes, you’re saving someone’s life. Good for you. But you’re also about to have the most interesting, exciting, joyful experience. I didn’t really believe it, either. You’ll see.