Consider giving a part of yourself

Question: If Mary donates one of her kidneys to John, Mary will have one left. How many will John have? (A) one, (B) two or (C) three.

Most of the time, the correct answer is (C). If leaving the failing kidneys in place isn’t causing a problem (say, high blood pressure), the surgeon will just tuck the third one into the patient’s belly.

It’s one of the many little-known facts about living kidney donation, a medical marvel that remains shockingly underused.

Living kidney donation has become simpler, safer and easier on the donor thanks to minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery. Yet the number of such transplants each year in the United States has been dropping almost steadily, down 14 percent over the past decade, with only 5,733 last year (about a third of all kidney transplants).

Meanwhile, the waiting list for a kidney from a deceased donor has surpassed 100,000 – and about 12 kidney patients die each day nationwide while often waiting years for a transplant.

Given that a kidney from a living donor often provides a better match, lasts about twice as long as one from a cadaver, usually starts working immediately and allows the surgery to be scheduled at an optimal time, the case for increasing living donation is compelling.

Congress and the public health community have been exploring innovative ways to attract more donors: with financial or in-kind incentives, such as college tuition – controversial because of the taint of turning body parts into saleable commodities – as well as reasonable accommodations such as ensuring that a donor would go to the top of a transplant list if the remaining kidney ever failed.

As a living kidney donor, I offer my own modest proposal: Let’s demystify kidney donation.

We’ve done it with breast cancer. Just as BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have become part of the national conversation, so can CKD (chronic kidney disease) and PKD (polycystic kidney disease).

Clearly, many more people would be willing to consider donating a kidney – be it for a family member, a friend or even a stranger – if they were more familiar with the process and knew what it was like today.

Question: How long does a kidney donor stay in the hospital after a transplant? (A) two weeks, (B) one week, or (C) two to four days.

Answer: (A) might have been true in the days, more than a decade ago, when doctors usually had to remove a few of the donor’s ribs to take out a kidney. (B) is closer to current practice, but (C) is the answer. With the overwhelming majority (100 percent at some centers) of living donor kidney surgeries now being done laparoscopically (think: bikini incision ), most donors can go home with a moderate painkiller after a few days.

Obviously, it’s not a walk in the park – and certainly there are risks to any major surgery – but I was expecting something far worse. As a lifelong wimp who has passed out during an eye exam, after a flu shot and in anticipation of a blood test that didn’t even happen, I figure that if I can do it, anyone who’s healthy enough certainly can.

When friends visited soon after I came home from the hospital, I shocked them by answering the doorbell in street clothes. They couldn’t believe how well I looked (true, I got a new hairdo shortly before the surgery, but I don’t think that’s what they meant ) and acted. Hearing that repeatedly prompted me to confide in a friend, only half-jokingly, that I felt so good, I had to wonder if the surgeon had done it right.

Question: How soon can a kidney donor go back to work? (A) three months, (B) two months or (C) two to four weeks.

Answer: (C) Unless the job requires heavy lifting or much physical exertion, most people go back to work in a few weeks.

To be a kidney donor, you don’t have to be under 30. It depends on the health of the kidney. I was 58 when I donated my kidney to my son.

Research has shown that acts of kindness and charitable giving light up pleasure circuits in the giver’s brain. Can you imagine the light display when you’ve literally given a part of yourself?

I can.

Carol Offen lives in Chapel Hill.