True Story: I donated a kidney to my dad

Would you donate a kidney to family member? What does the organ donation process look like? Click through for one woman's story of donating a kidney to her dad.

Would you donate a kidney to family member? What would that process even look like? Today, Jess shares her story of donating a kidney to her dad.

Tell us a bit about yourself! 

Hi internet! I’m Jess, a 29 year old Florida native living in Washington, DC. I work as an event coordinator for a non-profit, and in my free time I travel, read, and do lots and lots of internet shopping.

How did your dad come to need a kidney?

My dad has polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic condition where cysts grow on the kidneys and eventually shut down all function. My uncle and grandmother on my dad’s side both had PKD as well.

Tell us how you came to the decision that you wanted to give him one of yours. 

I happened to know that my dad and I have the same blood type, so as soon as I heard that he needed a kidney I volunteered to get tested. He’d been on the transplant list for about a year, but he was still a few years away and his need for a transplant had become urgent. As the testing process moved forward, I continued to think long and hard about my decision to donate, but never changed my mind.

How did your dad react when you told him you wanted to give him your kidney?

He was deeply grateful. I knew that he would never have asked me to get tested, but it’s something I definitely wanted to do.

Can you walk us through the process of getting tested to see if you were a match?

Testing is interesting! You learn a LOT about your health and anatomy, which can also be terrifying. If there’s anything undiagnosed lurking below the surface, you have to be prepared to find out. The first round is a blood test to determine if you’re a good “match”. They test not just blood type but also tissue type and a bunch of other medical factors.

Then if you match, there are further tests which include a CT scan, EKG, chest x-ray, and the most fun of all, a 24-hour urine collection. (Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.)

You’re adopted so you and your dad don’t actually share DNA and you were initially rejected as a match. What made you go back and re-test?

This is a crazy coincidence, but my dad and I were actually a great match – almost as good as a blood relative would be! I was rejected initially because it turns out the anatomy of my kidneys was complicated (I have multiple arteries connecting my kidneys, whereas most people have only one) and the hospital in question wasn’t able to perform the surgery.

After some online research, we found a hospital which specializes in this type of procedure and I went through the testing process again at the new hospital, where I was eventually approved as a candidate and cleared for surgery.

Tell us about the day of your surgery.

Surgery was scheduled first thing in the morning. My dad and I were prepped next to each other and were taken into our respective operating rooms at the same time. I didn’t require much prep – just fasting and a few IV hookups. My operation was supposed to take 2 hours but ended up lasting 4 due to my complicated anatomy.

Everything went really well and my recovery was surprisingly quick – it hurt like crazy the first few days, but the pain subsided entirely in under a week. The swelling was gone in less than a month and I’d say after three months I was totally back to normal. I’m fortunate to have been at a cutting edge hospital – my incision is only an inch long, inside my belly button, and barely even visible!

So you have one kidney now. Have you had to change anything about your daily life?

I actually haven’t had to change much at all! I’ve always been good about staying hydrated, so I pee the same amount (which is CONSTANTLY). I can drink and eat as I did before. The only permanent change is that the only over-the-counter painkiller I am allowed to take is Tylenol (no Aleve or Advil), since Tylenol is processed through the liver instead of the kidneys.

It’s also really important that I stay in good shape and keep myself as healthy as possible for the rest of my life — good advice for everyone, but extra crucial for me, as any kind of disease, extra weight, or other health issues can cause added strain to my remaining kidney.

How’s your dad doing?

He’s doing great! His kidney function was back to normal levels in less than 48 hours, which still blows my mind. He goes for regular testing and takes lots of medications, some of which he will wean off of eventually. His recovery took a lot longer than mine, but he’s in much better health now.

What resources helped you get through this?

I googled a few blogs of women who’ve donated and chronicled their progress, which was really helpful. Aside from that, the hospital provided all the resources I really needed. Donors are required to attend education sessions in addition to meetings with psychologists and social workers prior to donation. They really want to make sure that you’re making an informed decision and know exactly what to expect.

What have you learned from this that ANY of us could apply to our daily lives?

Life is short and the human body is capable of incredible things.

Also, never take your health for granted! This process has “inspired” me (and by “inspired” I mean “forced”) to take control of my health. What I’ve learned is this: Go in for check-ups. Get the screening you’re due for. Don’t be afraid of results, knowledge is power! The sooner a problem is identified, the easier it is to fix. You have to be your own advocate.

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Jess! Do you guys have any questions for her? And if you haven’t already, sign up to be an organ donor!

P.S. More health-related interviews: I have Narcolepsy, I had weight loss surgery, and I have Alopecia.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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  1. Kelly

    This is such a great story! I donated stem cells to a stranger and it’s a sort of incredible feeling, knowing that in a very (literally) visceral way you were able to save someone’s life. So awesome that Jess was able to help her dad!

  2. lamesha

    Jess, thank you so much for donating your kidney. I have a chronic kidney disease too (not the same one as your dad though) and may need a new kidney one day and it warms my heart to hear stories like this. And yes, 24 hour urine tests are the absolute worst. I’ve had so many in my lifetime and they never get easier. I’m glad recovery went well for both you and your dad. Wishing you both the best.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Your comment warms my heart, Lamesha! Best of luck with your health! <3

  3. Lesley S

    Love this story! I have a dear friend with PKD and watching its toll on her has been devastating. So happy you and your Dad are both doing well. Your lesson from this was a great takeaway for me – I have terrible Dr. anxiety and have been putting off some preventive appointments, but you are so right. Knowledge is power! Going to suck it up and get them scheduled. Thank you!

  4. Kelsi

    What a wonderful story! I’m so glad it was a success. How fantastic that you and your dad were a match! I am a donor recipient— of cartilage and tendon— and I’m so grateful for the individuals and families who made it possible for me to walk again. And, the fact that surgeons can perform these amazing operations is mind-blowing. Thank you for sharing your journey, Jess!

  5. Robyn Petrik

    This is the kind of story that warms my heart and redeems the Internet. Thank you for sharing Jess, and as always Sarah, thank you for the True Story series!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Thank YOU for reading, Robyn! It’s my favorite series!

  6. Tammy

    Dear Jess.
    Congratulations on being able to save your dad’s life! Tomorrow, I, too, am saving a life. I am donating my kidney to a friend’s son who is a decorated Marine Corps Veteran. This gentleman, who is in his late thirties, has battled kidney disease for nine years and has been on dialysis for five years. He was medically discharged from the Marine Corps due to his illness.
    He got very sick last spring and was hospitalized, his mother went above and beyond to bring awareness of his illness to the elementary school where we work together. Myself, my husband and others began getting tested for compatibility to see if we could help in some way. After some initial testing it was determined that not only was I a compatible match but my husband, too, was a match! My husband and I decided that I would be the one to continue being tested since it was more person for me.
    I continued on with the extensive testing process and then was to be presented to the transplant team at UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester. I was accepted and now am waiting very impatiently for December 5th to arrive.

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