Ask Andrea about her favorite things in her life and she will say her family, her independence and a good cup of coffee.
So, when a family member was facing a lifetime of dialysis and even worse complications from chronic kidney disease, she knew that she would donate her kidney to save their life without hesitation.
“It was a no-brainer,” she said. “What wouldn’t I do?”
From Diagnosis to Donation
Otherwise healthy, her family member’s diagnosis of sudden onset kidney disease was a shock to the family and the following months were disorienting. The family rallied to provide support and sought care at the Massachusetts General Hospital Transplant Center.
When discussing kidney transplant surgery, their Mass General care team introduced to them the option of living donation. Andrea immediately volunteered to undergo evaluation to see if she was eligible to become a living donor.
Living donation is an ideal option for patients in need of a transplant, allowing for them to receive a new kidney without waiting four to seven years for one from a deceased donor. In many situations, this allows patients to avoid dialysis which, in turn, improves their health outcomes and quality of life. Also, a living donor kidney usually functions right away, lasts longer than a deceased donor kidney, and results in an immediate and long-lasting improvement in the patient’s health. The donor's remaining kidney enlarges slightly to take over some of the function of the removed kidney.
“Living donors do not need to be biologically related to the recipient or even a blood-type match,” says Leigh Anne Dageforde, MD, MPH, transplant surgeon. “Many of the living kidney donor transplants at Mass General are done through a paired kidney exchange. This is an option for incompatible living donor and recipient pairs, where they are matched with another incompatible pair, or even several pairs to create a chain. Essentially, each donor gives a kidney to the other person's recipient. These exchanges have excellent outcomes with all the benefits of living donation for the recipient.”
As someone that values her independent life, Andrea’s biggest concern about becoming a living donor was whether she would have to change her lifestyle to accommodate a body with one kidney, such as giving up coffee or having to limit protein in her diet. Her care team assured her that she could return to her normal habits following recovery.
“It was very comforting for me that each specialist—whether it was the nephrologist, the nurse or the social worker—all gave me the same answers to my questions, just from different vantage points,” she said. “It was extremely coordinated and cross-functional. I thought to myself, ‘they’ve got this, they’ve done this before and I am going okay.’”
Andrea remembers the day that her living donor nurse coordinator at Mass General, Melissa Rosenthall, told her that she was a compatible match and could donate her kidney directly to her family member. “I couldn’t stop crying. For the first time, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
The First Living Donor to Undergo Robotic Nephrectomy at Mass General
When given the option, Andrea enthusiastically chose to become Mass General’s first living donor to undergo robotic nephrectomy, a minimally invasive surgery that allows for high-definition visualization of the surgical site and precise movements.
“I had the utmost confidence in my surgeon, Dr. Dageforde. She is excellently trained and very cutting edge,” she said. “She explained that the technology was established in the United States and that the team was bringing it to Mass General. I had no hesitations.”
At the Mass General Transplant Center, living donor kidney surgery is done both laparoscopically and robotically—both of which are associated with excellent outcomes including a shortened hospital stay, minimal pain and a quick recovery.
“Laparoscopic and robotic surgery allow for us to perform surgery in a precise, minimally disruptive way,” says Dr. Dageforde. “These minimally invasive techniques enable us to extract the kidney through a much smaller incision in a different part of the abdomen than traditional open surgery.”
After Surgery, a Life Saved
Andrea’s first request after surgery was to reunite with her family member, the recipient of her donation. She recalls the moment that she took their hand into her own.
“It was the first time in two years that it felt warm,” she said. “The color was in their face. It was an immediate difference.”
As for the pain, Andrea was surprised to learn that it was much less significant than she anticipated. She was able to return home after recovering for just two days at Mass General.
Today, she says that the joy of being able to help bring her family member back to full health has grown tenfold.
“They described to me in detail the first pork tenderloin they had at a restaurant and their first hike on the Kancamagus trail in New Hampshire,” she said. “Life has returned to full color.”
The gift she gave, she says, is now a constant gift back to her—one that she says she would give again and again.
Living Donor Kidney Program
Donating a kidney to another individual is an act of great kindness. Nearly half of the kidneys transplanted at Mass General are given by living donors—family members, friends, co-workers and donors who are unknown to the recipient.