Your Life After Kidney Donation

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on November 12, 2018
4 min read

Donating a kidney is no small thing. Even so, you don’t have to overhaul your lifestyle after surgery. “You need to be in good health in order to donate. So a lot of the steps you took to get healthy are the same steps that will help you stay that way,” says Susan Hou, MD.

One should know: In addition to serving as a transplant nephrologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, she donated a kidney to a stranger in 2002. “Very little changed for me afterward,” Hou says. “It was a great experience.”

If you’re considering donating a kidney, these four moves can keep you healthy after surgery and for years to come.

Most kidney donation surgeries are what doctors call minimally invasive. They require a few small cuts. That makes recovery faster and less painful than it would be with open surgery and a large cut in your body.

Even so, clear your schedule and plan to get lots of rest. “Your abdomen may be sore for a week or so after surgery,” Hou says. You should be able to go back to work within 10 to 14 days. If you have a physically demanding job, like construction, it’s better to take 6 weeks off. Don’t lift anything heavy -- that includes your children -- for the first month. 

Your surgeon or donor coordinator will schedule a follow-up for you. It usually takes place a few weeks after surgery. “That appointment is really important, so don’t delay or skip it,” says Tim E. Taber, MD, the medical director for kidney transplantation at Indiana University Health.

You should also see your doctor at least once a year. “He’ll check your urine and blood to see how your kidney is doing,” Taber says. “He’ll also screen for problems like high blood pressure and diabetes, which can contribute to kidney disease.”

If you notice blood in your urine or unusual swelling (especially in your legs and ankles), see your doctor right away. Those may be signs your kidney isn’t working right.

“I was always health conscious. But before surgery, I started exercising more and getting serious about keeping my stress levels in check,” says Roberta Mittman, who donated a kidney to her sister in 2004.

Those healthy lifestyle habits stuck, says the New York City resident, who’s now in her 60s. “Twelve years later, I’m still going strong, as is my sister.”

As Mittman suggests, you should try to maintain a healthy lifestyle:

Drink alcohol in moderation (or skip it altogether). More than two to three drinks a day can damage your kidney and increase your risk of problems like high blood pressure.

Stop smoking (or don’t start). It damages all of your organs, including your kidneys.

Mind your meds. Talk to your doctor about all the medications you take, including over-the-counter pills and supplements. Some common medicines, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may be hard on your kidney if you take them regularly or in high doses.

Eat well. You don’t need to follow a special diet, even right after surgery. But nutrient-rich foods will help you keep your weight in check and lower your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. That, in turn, will keep your kidney healthy. Some doctors think kidney donors should avoid eating too much protein, especially from protein powder or supplements. That’s because excess protein may make your kidney work harder.

Stay hydrated. Water is crucial for keeping your kidney working the way it should. “I was never a big water drinker before donation. Now I’m much more careful about making sure I’m hydrated,” Mittman says.

Be cautious about high-risk sports. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be in an accident -- sports-related or otherwise -- that damages your kidney, Hou says. Even so, talk to your doctor or donor coordinator if you’re into contact sports like hockey, football, or martial arts. They might recommend you wear a padded protective vest.

“Donating a kidney is an incredible gift,” Taber says. Knowing that you’re helping another person stay alive can make you feel great, even long after the surgery is done.

Even so, it’s normal to feel blue, especially in the weeks after donation. “People in the medical community put you on a pedestal. But after surgery, you’re back home, and it can feel like you’re on your own. That can be tough,” says Lee Adams. She lives in the Baltimore area and donated a kidney to her brother-in-law in 2007.

Fortunately, that “what now?” feeling is usually short lived. Even so, don’t wait to seek help if you’re sad -- or even if you just have questions or concerns.

“Donation is major surgery,” says Adams, who now frequently speaks with people who plan to donate. “Since you weren’t the one with kidney disease, you might feel guilty expressing doubt. But you should always feel good about speaking up. I still call my donor coordinator when I need to, and she happily answers every time.”