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Life After Kidney Donation: What is Recovery Like?

Erin Best

On February 22, 2023, I became a living kidney donor as part of a paired exchange donation through the National Kidney Registry.

Everything went well with the surgery, but during the recovery I experienced things I did not expect, which made me want to share my experience with others who may be considering becoming kidney donors.

Here’s what you need to know about recovering from kidney donation surgery:

You will need support. Becoming a donor requires a lot of emotional support from friends and family. You will need someone to be with you in the hospital and to help care for you afterward, especially in the days and weeks following surgery. You will be tired, sore, and need rest to recover. Make sure you have a good support system in place.

It’s an emotional process. In fact, the emotional part was a lot harder than the surgery itself! There were a lot of ups and downs. After I flew home following the surgery, I had a few weeks where I felt alone and adrift. I had to learn to let go; once my kidney was in someone else’s body, I knew I couldn’t control how it would (or would not) function. I often worried about my paired recipient and my intended recipient. Don’t go through this process alone: reach out to family and friends, especially those who have been through the process themselves.

The healing process is different for everyone. Your incisions, and how they heal, will vary depending on your surgeon, your overall health, whether you’ve had previous surgeries, etc. My surgery was laparoscopic, so I had three smaller incisions and one larger, vertical incision under my belly button. Some folks have horizontal incisions. My scar is similar to my C-section scar, and just like with that surgery, I would suggest having a soft pillow and a heating pad afterward. It helps to hold the pillow on your abdomen when you laugh, cough, or sneeze, or during a bumpy car ride.

The pain is manageable. Many people ask me about the pain: I stopped taking narcotics on the third day after surgery because they made me too nauseous. I switched to extra-strength Tylenol and there was no looking back. Yes, there is discomfort, but if you have had other surgeries before or have had a baby, then you know what to expect. I didn’t even have to get stitches taken out—I was glued together! Abdominal surgery in 2023 has come a long way since my C-section in 2005 (I had staples!).

Don’t rush your recovery. Healing takes time, so listen to your body. Drink tons of water and don’t push yourself. There are folks who return to running marathons a few months after donating, but recovery is not a race. I was in grad school at the time and managed to keep up with my schoolwork; however, going back to work as a substitute teacher was a different story. I returned to work part-time around three weeks after I donated, but I was exhausted by the time I got home. When I overdid it, my big incision throbbed and told me to lie down. I was warned not to lift anything over five pounds for at least six weeks, and I followed that advice strictly. I walked a lot, and by three or four months post-op, I was able to jog a mile or two again.

Life with one kidney is not very different from life with two. I still lead an active lifestyle and exercise daily. My life expectancy is the same as it was before I donated. I still eat the same foods. I have zero restrictions and have had no complications.

If you ever need a kidney transplant, you are protected. Because I donated through the National Kidney Registry, if something were to happen to my kidney and I needed a transplant, I would immediately be bumped to the top of the list because of the NKR’s kidney prioritization policy. It’s very very rare that kidney donors ever need transplants, but it’s great to know I will have that protection if I ever need it.

About the Author

In early 2023, Erin Best donated a kidney on behalf of a friend’s son in a three-way paired exchange with a stranger so he could get one from a stranger.

Erin is a devoted wife, mom, stepmom, and dog mom, who loves reading and writing, as well as exercising and baking. Erin craves learning and is a persistent and passionate advocate, both for humans and animals. She campaigns for disability, LGBTQIA, human rights and mental and emotional health.

Read Erin’s kidney donation story.

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