Kidney Donor Recovery Timelines

One of the common types of questions that comes up in the living kidney donor support groups is about the timelines for recovery. Donors compare notes to understand what gut check their plans and assumptions.

Everyone’s recovery is different and it’s important to prepare for best and worst case scenarios. In the survey, I asked a few of those questions to help give a prospective donors a better sense of timelines and how much it can vary.

How many days did you spend recovering in the hospital immediately after your kidney donation surgery?

I shared an early snapshot of the answers to this question with one of the Facebook groups as a way to raise awareness for the survey and to encourage participation. Through that discussion thread, I realized that the wording of this question was ambiguous.

When counting days in the hospital, some assumed they should do not count the day of surgery or the day of discharge while others assume the counter started the day they checked in for surgery and ended when they walked out the door. For example, if my surgery was Monday morning and I went home on Wednesday afternoon one donor may answer that they spent 3 days in the hospital while another may count that as 1 day.

Taking that context as a grain of salt, here’s a breakdown of days spent recovering in the hospital after surgery based on 272 respondents answering this question:

Self-reported days in hospital by Living Kidney Donors

My assumption is that the variation, in addition to how people interpreted the question, has to do with the type of surgery, differences in protocols across centers, and whether or not the donor experienced complications immediately following the surgery.

The Survey Monkey tool has a feature that let’s me compare responses based on how respondents answered other questions and look for statistical significance in the variations in groups. The only one variation that lit of as significant was type of surgery where donors who had a laparoscopic bikini incision were more likely to spend only one day in the hospital than those who had an open nephrectomy or hand-assisted belly button incision.

As with all of this, my advice to prospective donors is to understand that everyone’s recovery looks a little bit different and to ask a lot of questions when discussing it with your team or other donors.

How soon after the donating your kidney were you able to return to a regular diet?

I can’t remember what expectations I had what my diet would look like after I donated my kidney other than that they were completely wrong. In my case, I was still sipping Ensure and eating scrambled eggs more than a month after my surgery. But that was because I was one of the unlucky few to experience surgical complications.

It was interesting for me to see a better snapshot of what’s “normal” in terms of diet after donating a kidney. It seems like the vast majority of donors are eating a regular diet within a few weeks.

How Soon Did You Return to a Regular Diet_

How Long Before You Returned To Work?

So many factors can influence how long a donor takes off work to recovery from their kidney donation surgery, it’s really hard to read too much into the survey result. I have heard of people going back in two weeks and in an extreme case didn’t go back at all. It depends on the type of work you do and how you financially manage the time off as much as your individual recovery.

In this chart, I’m filtering out those who donated less than 2 months before taking the survey on the assumption that some of them may have answered that they still have not returned to work simply because their surgery was so recent. That could be alarming if taken out of context.

Time Off Work After Kidney Donation

The one thing that was flagged in the survey tool as statistically significant was that donors who used short term disability to cover their time off were significantly less likely to go back in fewer than 3 weeks and significantly more likely to take a full 6 weeks. It’s hard to read too much into this — I wish I had asked “How ready did you feel to return to work?”

Kidney Donors' Time Off Work By Leave Type

How soon after the transplant were you able to resume your previous fitness routine?

To avoid hernia, I think most doctors recommend a donor waits 6 weeks before working out. Depending on the type of exercise and barring any other complications, some may be cleared sooner and some may be asked to wait a bit longer.

In this chart, I’m filtering out anyone who had donated less than two month when they took the survey so that answers of “I still haven’t returned to my previous fitness routine” isn’t taken out of context. They were still recovering.

How Long Until You Returned To Your Regular Fitness Routine_

I asked donors what types of exercise their regular routine included. Those who mention walking were more likely to resume their routine in 2-3 weeks whereas those who mention HIIT workouts are more likely to take 4-6 months. The advice I have for other living donors is to listen to your doctor and your body. Don’t rush it.

You have to be pretty healthy to qualify as a donor. It’s encouraging but no surprise to see how active so many kidney donors are and continue to be after their surgery. Just for fun, I made another word cloud showing all the different exercise routines mentioned by living kidney survey respondent.

donor activity (1)

This survey is biased. Please be sure to read more About the Survey and About the Sample Bias for additional context on how it was created and who participated.

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