Information on Kidney Functions and Transplant

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What is a kidney?

Your kidneys are located toward the back of your body, just above the waist on either side of your spine. Each kidney is about the size of a fist and together they weigh slightly more than a pound. They are made up of millions of tiny filters called nephrons that work continuously to filter out waste products, toxins, and excess fluid. Approximately 1% of the population is born with only one kidney.

What does a kidney do?

The major function of the kidney is to cleanse the blood 24 hours a day. The entire blood supply circulates through the kidneys every two minutes. Urine is produced from the fluids and wastes removed by your kidneys. When the kidneys are not working well, people often feel very tired and look puffy from the build-up of excess waste material and fluids.

Major kidney functions are:

  • to produce urine
  • to eliminate waste materials and excess fluid from the blood
  • to help regulate blood pressure
  • to help produce red blood cells
  • to help build bones
  • to regulate chemicals needed by the body

What is dialysis?

When kidneys are not performing these functions, dialysis can serve as a substitute for some of the things kidneys normally do. For some people with kidney disease, dialysis is an adequate treatment, and many patients that are doing well on dialysis never consider transplantation.

Some patients, however, may have difficulty with dialysis. For example, dialysis may interfere with their daily activities. Others struggle with their access site for dialysis. Still others simply do not feel well on dialysis, experiencing a general lack of energy or feelings of nausea. Many individuals dread the needles that are required for dialysis. These are common reasons for people to seek transplantation as a treatment for their renal disease. Considering whether to pursue a kidney transplant is a very personal matter that depends on your particular situation.

Is transplant surgery right for you?

Ask yourself:

  • What are the risks and benefits to transplantation?
  • How will I manage the medication regimen after transplant?
  • Who will provide personal support for me?
  • What will the out-of-pocket expenses be?
  • What transportation options are available during the course of my treatment?
  • How often will I need to come back and forth to the hospital?
  • What will my insurance cover? Is there a cap or maximum on my insurance coverage?

Is a kidney transplant a better treatment option than dialysis?

A kidney transplant, like dialysis, is a treatment option for kidney failure. With a successful transplant, you will not need dialysis. Most patients live longer with a transplant than they do on dialysis and report living a more normal lifestyle. Their diet and fluid intake are much less restricted and individuals report higher energy levels after a transplant. Still, it is important to keep in mind that a kidney transplant is a treatment – not a cure.

Transplanted organs only function for a limited time. Currently, more than 80% of all transplanted kidneys from deceased donors are still functioning after two years. The survival rate of kidneys from living donors is 90-95% after two years. You will be given more specific information on current national and Fletcher Allen outcomes at the time of your evaluation.

Although many people feel the gains far outweigh the negatives, there are several important questions to consider. Transplantation will no doubt affect you in many areas of your life: physically, socially, financially, and emotionally. These questions will be discussed, and if you have a concern, be sure to speak with the social worker, transplant coordinator, and/or health care provider.

Who is eligible for kidney transplant?

Kidney transplant recipients are those with kidney failure who are nearing the start of dialysis or are currently on dialysis. During your evaluation, your general health condition will be assessed through a variety of diagnostic tests. The testing required will be discussed during your initial evaluation.

Your transplant will involve lifetime treatment.