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Giving while living: Fast facts about living organ donors

By renewing our driver’s license at the DMV, most of us are aware of the process of registering to become an organ donor should the worst come to pass. But there is another group of organ donors — living donors — who are helping relatives, friends and even strangers by donating a kidney or part of their liver. Living donors who choose to give a kidney — the most commonly donated organ — can survive with the remaining kidney, and the liver can regenerate and will grow back to nearly its original size, allowing donors to give the gift of life without sacrificing their own quality of life.

In 2023, 6,953 people in the U.S. received organs from living donors, and the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center is one of the top-performing centers for living kidney donor surgeries in the Midwest. Living donors save recipients precious time — often they can receive their organ in less than a year — and they are removed from the national transplant list, where more than 100,000 Americans await organ donations. Eighty-six percent of the candidates on that list are waiting for a kidney. 

Two women hugging

Living donors can choose who receives their organ, known as a directed donation, or give to a stranger (a nondirected donation). They must be age 18 or older, and in good physical and mental health. As part of the screening process, they will undergo a physical exam, lab tests, screenings for cancer and other conditions, a mental health evaluation, and have other discussions around the risks and benefits of living donation. 

Here are other things you should know about giving while living.

Most living donors continue to enjoy normal and healthy lives after they have recovered from surgery. Some kidney donors even report feeling so good, they almost forget they donated an organ.


You don’t have to be wealthy to be a living donor. Donors don’t pay for the costs associated with evaluation or surgery. The recipient’s insurance covers the cost of the transplant. 


Most donor testing can be done locally. If you need to travel for the surgery and require financial help, The National Living Donor Assistance Center provides donors financial assistance for costs associated with lodging, meals, lost wages, and childcare and eldercare.


Laparoscopy is the preferred surgical method for kidney donors. Transplant surgery is a major surgical procedure, and as with any surgery, there are risks. Barnes-Jewish minimizes those risks with a comprehensive evaluation process and extensive experience performing kidney donor surgery. Laparoscopy is done with a small incision guided by a camera and is much less invasive than an open surgery. Patients generally have a shorter hospital stay and faster recovery time. 


On average, living donors stay in the hospital one to two nights post-surgery. They typically recover within a month of the surgery. 


Everyone is a match for someone. If you find that you’re not a match for your intended recipient, you still might be a match for someone else. Barnes-Jewish Hospital participates in paired kidney donation. This process helps identify another donor-recipient pair whose organs do not match one another, but whose kidneys do match the other patient. Each donor gives a kidney to the other person’s intended recipient. 


Read more about the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center.


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