National Donate Life Month is celebrated each year during April. It helps raise awareness about organ and tissue donations, while encouraging Americans to register as a donor. Donate Life Month also honors those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.

More than 100,000 people are waiting for a transplant, but there are not enough donors to meet the need. In 2021, 6,000 people in the U.S. died while on the transplant waiting list, according to Donate Life America. On the positive side, nearly 6,500 lives were saved through living donors in 2022.

This blog helps explain living organ donations and how you can register to potentially save a life.

What can a living donor give?

While you’re alive, you can donate one kidney, or a piece of several other organs, including your liver, lung, pancreas and intestine. Living donors can also give tissue, such as skin, bone, and healthy cells from bone marrow, as well as blood and platelets.

Kidney donations are the most in need. On the organ transplant list, 85% of people are in need of a kidney, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. The liver is the next most needed organ.

Learn more about living donation from Donate Life America

Who can be a living donor?

There are some specific requirements for donors, but anyone over the age of 18 can be a living donor. Living donors should be in good physical and mental health. They should also know the risks and benefits of living donation.

Donors can include parents, children, siblings, relatives, or friends of a person in need of an organ or tissue. You can also donate to someone you've never met. About 25% of organ donations in the U.S. involve a donor and recipient who don't know each other.

Certain medical conditions could prevent you from being a living donor. Those include:

However, some diseases do not always disqualify you from donating. Every potential donor will be considered on an individual basis.

It is important that living donor candidates share all medical information – both physical and medical.

Read more about who can be a living donor

What are some risks of living donation?

Living donors generally do well after donation and continue with life as normal. As with any major medical surgery, there are possible risks involved with donation surgery.

Short-term effects can include pain or infection at the incision site. Long-term effects can include high blood pressure for kidney donors or intestinal problems for liver donors.

Learn more about the medical and psychological risks from the United Network for Organ Sharing

What are the different types of living donations?

Directed donation

A directed donation is where the living donor names a specific person to receive the transplant. This is the most common type of living donation. In this case, the living donor is usually a relative or friend of the person in need. The donor can also be an unrelated person who heard about the transplant candidate’s need.

If you would like to help someone you know, talk to them and contact the transplant program where the person is listed.

Read the story of an identical twin who gave her kidney to her sister at UC Davis Health

Non-directed donation

In non-directed donation, the living donor is matched with a person on the national transplant waiting list based on medical compatibility. If you would like to be a living non-directed donor, contact a transplant hospital on this list, which includes UC Davis Health’s Transplant Center.

Read: Donors, recipients meet for the first time in eight-way 'chain' kidney transplant at UC Davis Medical Center

How can I become a living donor?

If you want to donate to someone you know, ask to be put in touch with their transplant hospital.

If you want to donate to someone you don’t know, call a transplant hospital near you to talk about it. If you’re interested in becoming a living kidney donor at UC Davis Health, you can call the Living Donor Transplant Office at 916-734-2307.

Fill out this living donor questionnaire for UC Davis Health's Transplant Center

What is the process once I sign up as a living donor?

Transplant hospital staff will gather a lot of information about you to make sure you’re healthy enough to donate an organ. This may include the following:

  • Completing a physical exam, lab tests, screenings for cancer and other conditions
  • Answering questions about your medical history
  • Receiving a mental health evaluation
  • Answering questions about your social support
  • Discussing your financial situation and whether you can take time off from work and other responsibilities
  • Learning about the risks and benefits of living donation

Learn more about living kidney donation at UC Davis Health's Transplant Center

What is the surgery and recovery like for living donors?

Surgery will be done at the transplant hospital. Kidney donors usually stay in the hospital for 2-3 days, while liver donors stay about 5 days.

Kidney donors can drive a car about 2 weeks after surgery, and liver donors can drive between 2-4 weeks. After about 6 weeks to 3 months, kidney donors can lift more than 15 pounds. Liver donors can lift more than 15 pounds after 2-3 months.

However, every donor is different. Some might get back to regular life quicker than others. Some donors say they feel tired for quite a while after donation. Either way, it’s important to have a support system to help you for as long as you need.

All living donors need certain tests 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months after surgery. These vary by transplant hospital. Even if you feel well, tests and follow-up are very important. Your follow-up also gives transplant hospitals information that can help future donors.

Read more: How might I feel after living organ donation?

What are the benefits for recipients who receive live organ donations vs. deceased organ donations?

Living organ donations allow recipients to avoid the 3-5 year waiting period on the deceased donor list.

For people who need kidneys, it can allow them to plan the transplant before they need dialysis. This may allow the donated kidney to function longer. Live donations can be planned and timed to ensure the best condition for the recipient.

Read from UC Davis Health: 38-year-old who died in car crash saves the lives of four others

What costs are associated with being a living donor?

The transplant recipient’s insurance will cover the living donor’s medical expenses. This includes evaluation, surgery and some follow-up tests and appointments.

However, living donors are financially responsible for any routine health care or medical clearance that may be required. Donors may be responsible for any follow-up services if there are any medical problems that result from the donation.

Living donors are usually responsible for any transportation, lodging, meals, child care and lost wages. The National Living Donor Assistance Center may be able to provide financial help for non-medical expenses related to the donation.

Learn more: Overcoming the financial obstacles to living donation

Useful resources for living donors