Kidney Donation: A Personal Story


I have written this because you might be donating a kidney to a loved one.I have no medical experience but having done this myself, I can share with you what the experience was like for me.Not on a personal or spiritual level, but just what you can expect to happen to you, your body and your kidney.What follows are 2000 words giving you all the details.But before we get into that, let me just say that donating a kidney has to be the absolute easiest way to save someoneís life.I think if more people knew how shamelessly easy it is, the waiting list would be waiting for someone to be on it.Really.Itís THAT easy.


I donít know where you are in the processÖmaybe you need a bit more info before making any kind of decision or maybe youíve already had the blood test that determined you are a match to someone in need and you are wondering what comes next.What matters is that you are reading this, so youíve already thought about trying to help.Which is a good thing, because although cadaver kidneys are good and have offered many suffering people years of good life quality, live donations have a better success rate.So someone may have a much better chance at an improved life because of you.(I certainly donít mean to diminish the gift of cadaver kidneys in any way.I think giving away a part of your loved one at a time when you just really want them back is about the most generous and beautiful thing anyone could EVER do.)


So, okay, hereís what happened to me.(If you already know some or all of this stuff, please forgive me.) (Also, my donation was 5 years ago, which in the medical world, was the STONE AGE!So some of this may not even be done anymore.And if because of this, I give you false hopes or, worse, false fears, again, I ask your forgiveness.)


I had a blood test that determined that I would be a match to Chip, my friend.But some testing was needed first. So, I spent 24 hours collecting urine.Every drop that I produced in one day was saved in a jug in my refrigerator.If you are a woman and you havenít done this yet, ask for a ďhatĒ when you get your jug.Itís a plastic insert that looks like a hat with a wide brim and you put it in your toilet upside down so you are peeing into the hat.Makes collecting urine much easier.I didnít get one so I had to improvise and it was MESSY!


When I picked up my jug, I was also given a test for tuberculosis, a tiny little shot in my forearm. They would check for any kind of reaction to the shot 24-48 hours later.


24 hours later, my pee jug and I checked into the hospital for a full day of testing:x-rays, blood tests, EKG, a CT scan and more urine collection.I was examined by a nephrologist, a kidney doctor.They checked my arm for any reaction on the tuberculosis test and when there was none, they declared me PHYSICALLY fit for donation.Then they sent me down the hall to speak with a social worker.She needed to question me to make sure that I was MENTALLY fit.She also wanted to make sure that I wasnít being paid for my kidney and said she was also there to offer me an official ďunacceptableĒ rating from the hospital if I really didnít want to do this but was feeling pressured to by my family.Since I was quite willing to do this, she pronounced me a healthy acceptable donor and I was sent home to await surgery.


Between those tests and the actual donation date, I was in contact with our transplant coordinator who told me lots of interesting things about kidney transplants.


  • Kidneys are really small.They weigh about 5 ounces.If you make a really tight fist then look at it from the side where you see your thumb and forefinger, thatís about how big one is.


  • In a donation, they always take the left kidney.This is because the vein that connects the left one to the main blood supply is much longer than the connection on the right kidney.So when they cut the vein, they still have more than enough vein left on the kidney to attach it to the blood supply in the new person.


  • Itís easier to remove kidneys from women than men.Something about the way the organs are organized in women makes it easier to get around in there.


  • The donated kidney will be installed in the groin of the new person, not in the normal kidney location near the back.


  • In the two weeks following the transplant, my remaining kidney and my transplanted kidney would enlarge about 20% so that each can do the job of 2 kidneys.


  • Kidney donors, as a group, live longer than non-donors.


  • If done laproscopically, a small incision would be made through my belly button, and then a little bag would be pushed in.When the kidney was detached, it would be scooted into the bag and then pulled out.This means the incision could be really small, just big enough to fit a kidney.Before this procedure was pioneered, the incision had to be large enough for the doctorís hand to fit in.


  • If a ďfull-openĒ had to be done, the incision would be halfway around my waist from my navel to my spine.



She also told me that our donation date was 2 months away and during that time, I should get as active as possible, since this would help with the recovery.She also scheduled one more pee test closer to donation time just to be sure no infection or any problem occurred between now and then.


Now this next part makes me sound like a wacky, New-Age-y kind of person (and some people who know me might say that I am) but I began talking to my left kidney.I told it about the new job it would have and the exciting life it would lead.I told it it would be very happy in its new home, it would not try to leave and it would resist all disease.I had this talk with it almost daily.I think it helped.


The day before the surgery, I went back to the hospital for follow-up tests:more x-rays, blood tests, urine tests and counseling.†† And I met Dr. Sammy Vick, the man who would be removing my kidney.He works with Dr. Wright, the one who would be installing my kidney into my friend.The Vick/Wright duo had operated on Sean Elliot and his brother, San Antonioís best known kidney transplant story. (We were in hands good enough for the NBA.)Dr. Vick said there was not one recorded story of anyone dying during a kidney donation.And he was willing to bet one million dollars that I would not be the first.If Iíd had any concerns or hesitations up to that point, they were gone after our meeting.I was told no food or water after midnight and given a prescription for double enemas and, then, sent home to use them. ††(I am purposely leaving THOSE details out!)


Back to the New Age-y thing:The next morning, as we drove to the hospital, I could ďfeelĒ my left kidney.It wanted OUT!It was ready to go.I was so excited.I knew everything would be okay.


At the hospital, I changed into a gown and booties, got an IV inserted, told my family I loved them and went to sleep.


According to what the doctor told me later, hereís what happened while I was sleeping:they moved Chip and me into adjoining operating rooms and Drs. Vick and Wright were in radio contact with each other.Dr. Wright prepared Chip to receive while Dr. Vick attached a clamp to cut off the blood supply to my left kidney.Then they watched the urine output of the right kidney to see if it could work okay on its own.When Dr. Vick was satisfied that the right one was up to the job, he radioed Dr. Wright to let him know that the transplant could take place whenever he was ready.When Dr. Wright gave the signal, my left kidney was cut loose and rushed next door, where it was installed in Chipís groin.Total time outside a human body: less than 1 minute.1 minute later, in Chipís system, it began producing urine.3 hours after surgery began; we were wheeled into our rooms.


Before the surgery, my transplant coordinator told me that I would feel miserable after the surgery while the receiver of my kidney would feel great.Hereís how she explained it.First, imagine a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being perfectly healthy and feeling fine, and 10 being one foot in the grave.Chip had been existing somewhere near 6 because of his kidney problems.He would be walking into surgery at a 6 and I would be walking in at a 1, because good health is required of all donors.After the surgery, we both would be around 7.Going from a 6 to a 7 is no big deal but going from 1 to 7 is significant.So there would probably be a party in Chipís room but Iíd be too sick to go.Let me just tell you, she was right.


Actually, the day of the surgery is a blur.I woke up with a catheter installed, and an IV in my left arm that fed me fluids, antibiotics and pain reliever that I controlled with a button.I could push it every 10 minutes if I needed it.Also my legs were wrapped, from ankle to knee in inflatable plastic covers that regularly inflated and deflated in a sort of leg massage.I had 4 incisions, 3 small ones where they inserted the laparoscope and other surgical instruments and one larger one running vertically from my belly button.And they hurt.Not the cry-out-Oh-God-please-make-it-stop-kind of pain but more like the walking-around-all-day-in-new-shoes-kind of pain.It was bad but bearable.No stitches, they used tape.Because of all of the anesthesia I had in the surgery, I got a little nauseous when I was awake so I slept most of the day.


The next day, they woke me up early to take my vitals and remove the catheter.They stressed that it was very important that I start moving around, walking down the halls, walking to and from the bathroom.Unfortunately, walking requires using your abs and that was what hurt the most.I really didnít feel like walking, but looking back now, I can tell you that if I had to do it over again, Iíd really really try to walk more.It wasnít until I started walking that I started feeling better.


But the two days I spent in the hospital were pretty uneventful.I got my vitals taken every morning, had my pee measured every day, sucked up all the sympathy anyone offered.Because I wasnít ďsickĒ, there was nothing really that had to be done to me.They just keep you at the hospital Ďtil most of the anesthesia wears off and you poop.(Excuse me, ďhave a bowel movementĒ)I donít know what it is but you canít leave a hospital, no matter why you are there, until you have had a movement.No one ever told me why.


One very important thing that I need to stress about the post-op part is this:get yourself a tummy pillow.Pick one out right now.It could be one of your bed pillows or even a cushion from the couch.After the surgery, your incision will feel better if you cover it with a pillow.Some hospitals have even started giving out pillows for just this purpose.Not only will it make you feel better, but it will protect your incision from any bumps or movements that might hurt it.Chip and I both used one in the hospital, in our cars going home and at home for about a month after the surgery.Trust me on this one.Get a pillow.


I was told that the recovery time would be 2 weeks until I felt like myself again and 2 months until I could lift heavy things.They were exactly right.At home, right after the surgery, I began thinking that I had made a mistake, I was too old for this sort of thing, that I had ruined my life even as I had saved Chipís.I just didnít feel good.Then I started walking around outside a little farther everyday and 12 days after the surgery, I felt like me again.So much so that I lifted something heavy.My incision told me right away that it was a mistake.Dr. Vick assured me no harm was done but advised me not to do it again for 2 months.Yes sir!I returned to work 2 weeks after the surgery.I returned to working out 2 months after.


Hereís a quick note about working out, something that both Chip and I learned the hard way.When you have an abdominal incision, your body learns to move in a way that inflicts the least amount of effort (and pain) in that area.What it does, is use your back to do the stuff your abs used to do.When you start working out, your back will keep doing the ab work unless you make a really strong effort to stop it.The first time I did crunches after the surgery, my back was KILLING me.The next time, I would pay very close attention to where the effort was coming from and if it was my back, I would stop until I could make my abs do the work.It took a few weeks before my back and abs were doing their proper jobs again without me telling them to.Chip was not as careful and ended up having back surgery because of it.So the lesson is: Be careful with your back.


Today, I can tell you in all honesty that sometimes I forget I have only one kidney.My life has not changed one bit and thatís how it was supposed to be.I feel absolutely no different and my friend Chip is alive to be there for his wife and kids.People still want to make a fuss every now and then, but I donít let them.It was way too easy to allow people to fuss over it.I hope your experience is the same.Good luck to you.



Amy Kissling


Return to Captainís Quarters