The surgery to donate a kidney requires general anesthesia (so that you will “sleep” through surgery), several small incisions, and the removal of one of your kidneys. It is a major surgery, although it is considered “low-risk” because it can be planned, it is performed by specially trained surgeons, and the donors are healthy people.
Many living kidney donors are concerned about surgical complications, which can include pain, infection, pneumonia, kidney damage, blood clots, a collapsed lung, an allergic reaction to anesthesia, or even death (see below). However, your transplant team will try to reduce your risk by removing your urinary catheter (a tube in your bladder), getting you to walk around the hospital floor, and getting you home as soon as possible.
Can I die from donating a kidney?
A study of all the living kidney donors who donated from 1994 to 2009 found that 25 out of 80,347 donors died within 90 days of kidney donation. That’s about 0.03% of donors, or 3 in 10,000.1 This can be due to bleeding, getting a blood clot, or getting an infection.2 While 0.03% is a low number, it is still a risk, and it is up to you to decide if that is a low enough risk.
We understand that donating a kidney is something that you volunteer to do, and it should be made as safe as possible. Kidney transplantation surgeons, nurses, and coordinators are working to make kidney donation even safer. This includes reviewing the tools that we use, our surgical techniques, the tests we perform before donation, and how we care for donors before and after surgery. We are constantly working to make these processes safer and better.
While having surgery raises the short-term risk of death, donors usually enjoy long lives after donation. This is because we pick only very healthy people to donate. Since kidney donors are healthier than the average person and get a very thorough examination before surgery, they actually live longer than the average person living in the United States.1 Of course, this is not because of their donation but because they are so healthy. When kidney donors do pass away, it is because of the same causes as everyone else, such as heart disease and cancer, which are the top two causes of death in the United States.3, 4
In summary, the surgery to donate a kidney has a 0.03% risk of death, but it is a real risk and only you can decide if that risk is low enough. Your transplant team will do everything they can to keep you safe and can answer any questions that you have along the way.
1. Segev DL, Muzaale AD, Caffo BS, et al. PErioperative mortality and long-term survival following live kidney donation. JAMA 2010;303(10):959-966.
2. Ratner LE, Sandoval PR. When Disaster Strikes: Death of a Living Organ Donor. American Journal of Transplantation 2010;10(12):2577-2581.
3. Mjøen G, Reisaeter A, Hallan S, Line P-D, Hartmann A, Midtvedt K et al. Overall and cardiovascular mortality in Norwegian kidney donors compared to the background population. Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation 2012;27(1):443-447.
4. Fehrman-Ekholm I EC, Stenbeck M, Tyden G, Groth CG. Kidney donors live longer. Transplantation 1997;64(7):976-978.