Every 10 minutes someone in the United States is added to the waiting list for an organ transplant. The fact is, organ donations save lives every day thanks often to the kindness of strangers who have signed up to be organ donors or family members of loved ones who make that choice.
Yet there is still a significant need for organ donors and National Organ Donor Day on Feb. 14 is a reminder to people to consider making this lifesaving choice.
“You don’t have to die to save somebody’s life,” said Anastasia Darwish, Executive Director of the American Transplant Foundation, the only non-profit in the United States that provides financial assistance to some transplant patients and living donors, regardless of their legal status. “I think for years the conversation when we talked about organ donation was always around the registration. People checked that box and said, ‘My job is done, what more can I do?’ Out of the millions of deaths, only about ten to twelve thousand organs are good enough to be transplanted. Now kidney transplantation [from a living donor] is a safe procedure.”
The Gift of Life
For those who make the choice to be living donors, there are many plans to make in advance—including a need for in home care after the surgery. Robyn Leone donated a kidney to her husband in 2013 and was both glad she had asked for help in advance from her family and still found herself in need of help from neighbors.
“We had different recovery issues and needs when we came from the hospital,” Ms. Leone, 45, recalled of how she and her husband, 52, healed after she gave him a kidney. “The prolonged recovery was much different than expected.”
Ms. Leone spent four days in the hospital and her husband was in the hospital for five days. She said their teenage daughter was “impacted a significant amount” by having both of her parents laid up during this time.
In general, Ms. Darwish said that a living donor will leave the hospital within 48-72 hours after surgery (sometimes even in 24 hours). There are other ways for individuals to be living donors—partial liver, partial lung, bone marrow—but Ms. Darwish said the 95% of living organ donors donate a kidney.
“For living kidney donors the complication rate is less than 1 percent and the risk of dying is 0.04 percent,” Ms. Darwish said.
Post-surgery, both the donor and the recipient cannot lift anything more than 10-20 lbs. and while they need rest, they are also encouraged to walk and get a little physical activity to heal.
“All this family wants to come and make sure you are ok during the surgery,” said Ms. Leone.” I think you need to pick a main caregiver who really is a doer.” Ms. Leone had her father and stepmother come and help by doing grocery shopping and cooking, including preparing meals that were frozen for easy reheating later.
“We only had people stay with us for two full days,” she said, noting that standing at countertop height, or standing for more than five minutes, and simply bending down to lift pots and pans was “really, really hard” at first. Her family was willing to stay longer, but Ms. Leone was ready to heal privately and quietly. However, there was one day that her husband needed to go to the doctor for a follow-up appointment and when she got in the car to drive him there she found just pulling the seatbelt across her body too painful so she instead asked a neighbor to drive them.
“I felt fully recovered at five weeks,” she said. “It started slowly and built up to the point where I could move my legs without pain.”
Ms. Leone works from home and her husband took a leave of absence from his job so they could recover. “One of the most important things is having a really good expectation what you can and can’t do from a work perspective,” she said of the recovery after donating or receiving a kidney. “I had a face to face meeting with my company and they were enamored that I was doing this.”