Procedure Kidney Disease (Nephrology)

Kidney Transplant

As kidneys become diseased, they lose their ability to function, a condition called end-stage renal disease (ESRD) or kidney failure. Treatments for kidney failure are hemodialysis, a mechanical process to clean the blood of waste products; peritoneal dialysis, in which toxins are removed by passing chemical solutions through the abdomen; and kidney transplant.

None of these options is a cure for kidney failure. But a transplant offers the best prospects, given that the transplanted kidney functions successfully.

Living Donors

Kidneys for transplant come from a living donor or a deceased (cadaver) donor. When a kidney is transplanted from a living donor, the donor's remaining kidney enlarges to take over the work of two. As with any major operation, there is a chance of complication. But kidney donors have the same life expectancy, general health and kidney function as others.

Any healthy person can safely donate a kidney. The donor must be in excellent health, well informed about transplantation and able to give informed consent.

Costs for living donor surgery, hospitalization, diagnostic tests and evaluation usually are paid by the recipient's insurance. Travel and living expenses are not covered. Insurance coverage will be discussed during the transplant evaluation.

If you have a potential living donor, he or she will undergo an evaluation and discuss the possibility of organ donation. Tests will be performed to ensure that the donor and recipient are compatible. In some families, several people are compatible donors. In other families, none are suitable.

Since 1999, UCSF has been using a procedure, called laparoscopic donor nephrectomy, to remove kidneys from living donors. We have performed more than 850 of these procedures, making our program one of the most experienced in the country. The procedure uses tiny incisions and a scope or camera, similar to one used to remove a gall bladder. The procedure has a shorter recovery period and the complication rate is very low. In addition, the quality and function of the transplanted kidneys are excellent.

The procedure will be described in detail by the surgeon prior to surgery. The operation usually takes three hours. Most patients undergoing laparoscopic surgery for kidney donation require a hospital stay of only two to three days. After discharge from the hospital, the donor is seen for follow-up care in the transplant clinic. If the donor resides outside the San Francisco region, he or she should stay in the area for at least a week after discharge. Donors who undergo laparoscopic surgery often return to work within three to four weeks after the procedure.

Special programs for living donor transplants include:

  • Blood Type Incompatible
  • Paired Exchange
  • Positive Crossmatch
  • Waiting List Exchange

Cadaveric Donors

A cadaveric kidney comes from a deceased donor. The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act allows us to donate organs for transplant when we die and allows our families to provide permission as well. All donors are carefully screened to prevent disease transmission.

If you decide to undergo a cadaveric kidney transplant and you're medically eligible, your name will be placed on a cadaver waiting list. A blood sample for antibody level will be sent monthly to the medical center. The waiting period for a cadaver kidney depends upon the availability of a cadaver donor compatible with your blood type and your antibody level.

When a kidney becomes available, your referring kidney specialist is contacted for approval. The transplant service will verify that you have no recent infections or medical problems that would interfere with a safe transplant. We will assist you in making arrangements for your transplant.

Transplant Surgery

Your surgery may last from two to four hours. During the operation, the kidney is placed in your pelvis rather than the usual kidney location in the back. (Your own kidney will not be removed.) The artery that carries blood to the kidney and the vein that removes blood from it are surgically connected to two blood vessels in the pelvis. The ureter, or tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder, is transplanted through an incision in the bladder.

After the operation, you will remain in the recovery room for a few hours and then return to the Kidney Transplant Unit. The surgeon will inform your family when the procedure is over.

You will be encouraged to get out of bed 12 to 24 hours after surgery and walk as much as you can. Nurses will instruct you in taking your medications, explain the side effects and discuss making lifestyle changes.

A cadaver kidney transplant sometimes will be temporarily slow in functioning, a condition called a "sleepy" kidney or acute tubular necrosis (ATN). You may need to undergo dialysis a few times. A "sleepy" kidney usually starts working in two to four weeks.

Most transplant recipients must take medication called immunosuppressants to prevent rejection of the transplanted organ. One of the side effects of these anti-rejection drugs is an increased risk for cancer, particularly skin cancer and lymphoma. You should be closely monitored for these conditions.

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.

Recommended reading

FAQ: Living Kidney Donor

Living donor kidney transplants are an important option. They're possible because we're born with two kidneys. Learn more here.

Organ Transplant and Skin Cancer Risk

Organ transplant patients have up to a 100-fold higher risk of developing skin cancer than the general population. Learn about precautions to take and follow-up care.

Surgical Weight Loss Procedures for Kidney Transplant Patients

In the case of patients waiting for a kidney transplant, losing weight also can improve their chances of being a transplant candidate. Learn more here.

Transplant Screening Tests

Regardless of the type of kidney transplant you may undergo, special blood tests are needed to determine the kind of blood and tissue you have. Learn more.

Special programs

Living Kidney Donor Programs

Our living kidney donor program creates options when transplant patients are waiting on a match. Willing donors may help a loved one or choose to help a stranger. Read more.

Seeking care at UCSF Health

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