When you get a kidney transplant, a healthy kidney is placed inside your body to do the work your own kidneys can no longer do.
What is a kidney transplant?
When you get a kidney transplant, a healthy kidney is placed inside your body to do the work your own kidneys can no longer do. On the plus side, there are fewer limits on what you can eat and drink, but you should follow a heart-healthy diet. Your health and energy should improve. In fact, a successful kidney transplant may allow you to live the kind of life you were living before you got kidney disease. Studies show that people with kidney transplants live longer than those who remain on dialysis. On the minus side, there are the risks of surgery. You will also need to take anti-rejection medicines for as long as your new kidney is working, which can have side effects. You will have a higher risk for infections and certain types of cancer. Although most transplants are successful and last for many years, how long they last can vary from one person to the next. Many people will need more than one kidney transplant during a lifetime.
What is a “preemptive” or “early” transplant?
Getting a transplant before you need to start dialysis is called a preemptive transplant. It allows you to avoid dialysis altogether. Getting a transplant not long after kidneys fail (but with some time on dialysis) is referred to as an early transplant. Both have benefits. Some research shows that a pre-emptive or early transplant, with little or no time spent on dialysis, can lead to better long-term health. It may also allow you to keep working, save time and money, and have a better quality of life.
Who can get a kidney transplant?
Kidney patients of all ages—from children to seniors—can get a transplant. You must be healthy enough to have the operation. You must also be free from cancer and infection. Every person being considered for transplant will get a full medical and psychosocial evaluation to make sure they are a good candidate for transplant. The evaluation helps find any problems, so they can be corrected before transplant. For most people, getting a transplant can be a good treatment choice.
What if I’m older or have other health problems?
In many cases, people who are older or have other health conditions like diabetes can still have successful kidney transplants. Careful evaluation is needed to understand and deal with any special risks. You may be asked to do some things that can lessen certain risks and improve the chances of a successful transplant. For example, you may be asked to lose weight or quit smoking. If you have diabetes, you may also be able to have a pancreas transplant. Ask your healthcare professional about getting a pancreas transplant along with a kidney transplant.
Getting a Transplant
Medical professionals will give you a complete physical exam, review your health records, and order a series of tests and X-rays to learn about your overall health. Everything that can affect how well you can handle treatment will be checked. The evaluation process for a transplant is very thorough. Your healthcare team will need to know a lot about you to help them—and you—decide if a transplant is right for you. One thing you can do to speed the process is to get all the testing done as quickly as possible and stay in close contact with the transplant team. If you’re told you might not be right for a transplant, don’t be afraid to ask why—or if you might be eligible at some future time or at another center. Remember, being active in your own care is one of the best ways to stay healthy. If someone you know would like to donate a kidney to you, that person will also need to go through a screening to find out if he or she is a match and healthy enough to donate. If it’s your child who has kidney disease, you’ll want to give serious thought to getting a transplant evaluation for him or her. Because transplantation allows children and young adults to develop in as normal a way as possible in their formative years, it can be the best treatment for them. If the evaluation process shows that a transplant is right for you or your child, the next step is getting a suitable kidney. (See "Finding a Kidney" below.)
You may be surprised to learn that your own kidneys generally aren’t taken out when you get a transplant. The surgeon leaves them where they are unless there is a medical reason to remove them. The donated kidney is placed into your lower abdomen (belly), where it’s easiest to connect it to your important blood vessels and bladder. Putting the new kidney in your abdomen also makes it easier to take care of any problems that might come up. The operation takes about four hours. You’ll be sore at first, but you should be out of bed in a day or so, and home within a week. If the kidney came from a living donor, it should start to work very quickly. A kidney from a deceased donor can take longer to start working—two to four weeks or more. If that happens, you may need dialysis until the kidney begins to work. After surgery, you’ll be taught about the medicines you’ll have to take and their side effects. You’ll also learn about diet. If you’ve been on dialysis, you’ll find that there are fewer restrictions on what you can eat and drink, which is one of the benefits of a transplant.
Normally, your body fights off anything that isn’t part of itself, like germs and viruses. That system of protection is called your immune system. To stop your body from attacking or rejecting the donated kidney, you will have to take medicines to keep your immune system less active (called anti-rejection medicines or immunosuppressant medicines). You’ll need to take them as long as your new kidney is working. Without them, your immune system would see the donated kidney as “foreign,” and would attack and destroy it. Anti-rejection medicines can have some side effects. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider about them, so that you know what to expect. Fortunately, for most people, side effects are usually manageable. Changing the dose or type of medicine can often ease some of the side effects. Besides the immunosuppressive medicines, you will take other medicines as well. You will take medicines to protect you from infection, too. Most people find taking medicines a small trade for the freedom and quality of life that a successful transplant can provide.
After Your Transplant
Once you are home from the hospital, the most important work begins—the follow-up. For your transplant to be successful, you will have regular checkups, especially during the first year. At first, you may need blood tests several times a week. After that, you’ll need fewer checkups, but enough to make sure that your kidney is working well and that you have the right amount of anti-rejection medication in your body.
One thing that you and your healthcare team will watch for is acute rejection, which means that your body is suddenly trying to reject the transplanted kidney. A rejection episode may not have any clear signs or symptoms. That is why it is so important to have regular blood tests to check how well your kidney is working. Things you might notice that can let you know you are having rejection are fevers, decreased urine output, swelling, weight gain, and pain over your kidney. The chances of having a rejection episode are highest right after your surgery. The longer you have the kidney, the lower the chance that this will happen. Unfortunately, sometimes a rejection episode happens even if you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do. Sometimes the body just doesn’t accept the transplanted kidney. But even if a rejection episode happens, there are many ways to treat it so you do not lose your transplant. Letting your transplant team know right away that you think you have symptoms of rejection is very important.
Rejections happen much less often nowadays. That’s because there have been many improvements in immunosuppressive medicines. However, the risk of rejection is different for every person. For most people, rejection can be stopped with special anti-rejection medicines. It’s very important to have regular checkups to see how well your kidney is working, and make sure you are not having rejection.
How soon you can return to work depends on your recovery, the kind of work you do, and your other medical conditions. Many people can return to work eight weeks or more after their transplant. Your transplant team will help you decide when you can go back to work.
People who have not had satisfactory sexual relations due to kidney disease may notice an improvement as they begin to feel better. In addition, fertility (the ability to conceive children) tends to increase. Men who have had a kidney transplant have fathered healthy children, and women with kidney transplants have had successful pregnancies. It’s best to talk to your healthcare practitioner when considering having a child. Women should avoid becoming pregnant too soon after a transplant. Most centers want women to wait a year or more. All pregnancies must be planned. Certain medications that can harm a developing baby must be stopped six weeks before trying to get pregnant. Birth control counseling may be helpful. It’s important to protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Be sure to use protection during sexual activity.
In general, transplant recipients should eat a heart-healthy diet (low fat, low salt) and drink plenty of fluids. If you have diabetes or other health problems, you may still have some dietary restrictions. A dietitian can help you plan meals that are right for you.