Kidney Kinships

Sept. 21, 2009
We could end the national kidney transplant wait all together if less than 3/10ths of 1 percent of the U.S. population thought differently about organ donation.

By Risa Simon

In a nation where donated kidneys are scarce — and the wait list feels like a prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter — dialysis continues to rule the majority.

Designed as a treatment to preserve life (when kidneys can no longer function on their own), dialysis can be debilitating, demoralizing, and extremely restrictive. Whether patients are tethered to a machine in an outpatient setting three to four hours a day, three times a week, or at home exchanging fluids several times a day – every day, the task is arduous to say the least. So while dialysis was invented to save life, long-time users often see it as a treatment for postponing death.

Kidney transplant recipients, on the other hand, can live a normal life with very few restrictions. Despite the high price of immunosuppressant drugs, a transplant actually cost less money — a lot less — than dialysis long term. Transplant costs (when compared to dialysis costs) save hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet proactive approaches seeking transplant over dialysis are severely lacking.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that kidneys are hard to come by. In the United States alone, 85,267 people currently reside on the official waiting list. The irony for the preponderance of those waiting for their name to escalate to the top of this list, is that they must hope for sufficient donor advocates to die — before they do!

For those who live in states with large cities like California, the odds seem to get worse. For example, California currently has 16,639 people registered on the US kidney transplant waiting list. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), there were 1,469 transplants performed in California in 2008, of which 762 were from deceased donors. Using last year as a reference for future timelines, California’s wait list could conceivably take over 21 years, if deceased donors were the only supply source. And that says nothing for the projection that numbers will double by 2015!

Yet, we could end the national kidney transplant wait all together if less than 3/10ths of 1 percent of the US population thought differently about organ donation. A mere shift in thinking could save thousands of lives. It simply requires our nation to give up the idea that being an organ donor means the donor has to be dead to donate. And, all it would take is about 33% of the total attendance at the Indy 500 to meet our country’s current kidney needs.

Yet, the vast majority of people haven’t realized that they actually have two kidneys, and that a healthy person can live just-as-well with one as they can with two. Moreover, very few people understand that a kidney donor’s remaining kidney simply expands to work as if it were functioning at the power of two.

Another interesting note is that basic logic tells us it is wise to hold on to both our kidneys. After all, God intended it to be that way, right? Yet, anyone affected with kidney disease is typically affected in both kidneys simultaneously. So, with the exception of unilateral trauma or cancer, there doesn’t appear to be a huge advantage to having an extra kidney in reserve.

Fortunately, our nation is blessed with a good number of altruistic people who have a strong desire to serve others. Yet, as these honorable individuals seek heroic opportunities to reveal themselves, a lack of understanding and awareness stifles their participation in this area.

The upside however, is that more and more news stories are surfacing about the miracle of living donation. And the good news is that kidneys can now be removed laparoscopically, which is far easier than the way it use to be performed. Surprisingly, only tiny incisions and a fiber-optic camera are required to guide the surgeon, which minimizes discomfort and shortens recovery time significantly.

Independent of the procedure, a more common deterrent is that most people think they’d have to be related to the recipient to donate. This is not true. Donors only need to have the right blood-type to begin the testing process. Even then, a blood-type incompatibility is not a “deal-breaker” with the advent of innovative Paired Donation programs, which are analogous to an exchange program for incompatible donors and recipients.

Be it a living relative, friend, loved one, or altruistic stranger, the enormity of receiving a kidney is awe-inspiring and immeasurably life-saving. For the living donor, their gift-of-life can be exceedingly life-changing. The distinction in living donation is that the living donor can witness the significance of their own magnitude — while they’re still living!

Likewise, the recipient is privileged with the ability to celebrate their gratitude “in real time” with the person who selflessly renewed their life. Indeed, living donation is one of life’s most brilliant “pay it forward” moves in human kindness — and one exponential leap for mankind.

Risa Simon, CMC, is a published author, professional speaker and a Certified Management Consultant. Also serving as the Phoenix Chapter Coordinator for the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation, and an inspired advocate and founder of Kidney Kinships, Risa dedicates a good portion of her time to increasing awareness in the need for living organ donation. To view her two-minute inspirational movie clip click on this link: Movie Clip For more information on living kidney donation, visit: or email [email protected].