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Kidney transplants

A kidney transplant is an operation to place a healthy donor kidney in a person whose two kidneys are no longer working properly. A transplant is considered a long-term alternative to kidney dialysis. This article contains general information about kidney transplants.

Considering a kidney transplant

If you have serious (end-stage) kidney failure, a kidney transplant may be an option. A transplant may offer you both a longer, dialysis-free life, and a better quality of life.

Your healthcare team will assess whether you are medically suitable for a kidney transplant.

To decide whether you want a transplant, it is important to understand your condition and the potential benefits and risks of the procedure. You also need to be willing to undertake the self-care that will be required - for the rest of your life - after the operation. Read more about the questions to ask your healthcare team.

Who can donate a kidney?

People can choose to donate their kidneys when they die (deceased donor) or they can donate one kidney while they are still alive (live donor).

If you donate a kidney, you can usually live safely with your one remaining kidney without complications. Living donors are usually relatives, partners or close friends. To read more about organ or tissue donation after death or to register as a donor, visit www.donatelife.org.au.

The waiting list for a transplant

If you are suitable for a kidney transplant and you wish to have one, your name will be put on a waiting list. This is because there are usually not enough donor kidneys for the number of people who need a transplant at any one time. The average wait for a deceased donor kidney is about 3.5 years.

When a deceased donor kidney becomes available, a recipient is chosen based on the best blood and tissue match. You need to be contactable in case a suitable donor kidney becomes available.

To be ready for a kidney transplant and to help with your recovery, it is a good idea to be as healthy and fit as possible. In particular, you should:

What happens during a kidney transplant?

A kidney transplant usually takes 2 to 3 hours, with a couple of hours in recovery. The surgeon will make a cut in the lower part of your body and place the new kidney in position.

The new kidney will be connected to the bladder by a transplanted ureter. It will also need to be connected to your blood supply.

Your old (diseased) kidneys are not usually removed unless they are causing a medical problem.

You will usually have a temporary tube to drain your urine (known as a catheter) for a few days.

If your new kidney does not work right away, you may need dialysis for a short while until it does.

Your medical team will check if your kidney works and find any early signs of rejection by your body.

After the surgery, you will probably need to stay in hospital for a few weeks to recover.

Illustration of a transplanted kidney showing the old kidneys, the transplanted kidney, the catheter and the bladder
The transplanted kidney is positioned near the pelvis, below the two kidneys that are no longer working properly.

Life after a kidney transplant

After the operation, you will likely need to take medicine for the rest of your life to prevent your body from rejecting the new kidney. Your healthcare team will probably talk to you about your treatment plan, how to monitor your health and the self-care required. You will probably still need regular check-ups and you need to continue taking your medication as prescribed.

Since the anti-rejection medication weakens your immune system, you should try to avoid getting infections by:

  • staying away from people who you know are sick, (e.g. with the flu or chickenpox)
  • washing your hands well before eating
  • covering any cuts or wounds.

Also, follow your healthcare team’s advice on living a healthy lifestyle, such as getting enough physical activity and eating healthily. For instance, avoid high-salt foods and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol because salt and alcohol can raise your blood pressure, which can damage your kidney.

Most people feel they have a better quality of life after a kidney transplant.

How family and friends can help

Making the decision to have a kidney transplant, waiting for a donor organ, having the operation itself and getting used to life after the transplant can be stressful. The medication to prevent rejection can also affect your mood. However, family and friends can help in a number of ways, including:

  • supporting you emotionally
  • reminding you about taking your medications
  • driving you to your appointments.

Last reviewed: September 2017

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