Recovery after Kidney Donation

After kidney donation surgery, you wake up in the recovery area, likely surprised that three to four hours have passed and it's all over. It doesn't take long to realize that your body's been through a major event. You're groggy and possibly have pain. You may be nauseous from the anesthesia. Nurses monitor your vital signs, as well as your pee output, thanks to a catheter. 

Recovery after kidney donation Phase 1: Out of surgery.

Recovery after kidney donation Phase 1: Out of surgery.

Managing Pain After Surgery

Nurses give you pain medication as you need it. This is not the time to tough it out, even if you're hesitant to take prescription medication for pain. Keeping pain under control helps you recover and heal. Many donors feel nervous about taking narcotics, worrying about becoming addicted. Using the medication in the hospital as needed and at home during your recovery helps you feel more comfortable, move better and heal.   

Most transplant centers use a nerve block in the area of the incision, which allows you to move easier, without pain around the main incision, at least while you're in the hospital. It's amazing how much it helps when you may be dealing with other issues, like nausea or gas pain. 

About that gas pain

During laparoscopic surgery, the surgeon inflates your abdomen with carbon dioxide gas to have room to see and work. The body eventually absorbs the gas, but until it does, the gas can cause pressure and pain in the abdomen, and surprisingly, in the shoulders. (When you sit up the gas moves toward the diaphragm and can hit the phrenic nerve, which runs from the diaphragm to the neck, and cause stabbing pain in the shoulders.) The gas pain is significant for some people; for others, it may feel like nothing more than the remnants of a hearty Mexican meal.

The best way to help your body move the absorption process along is to get up and walk. But if you're having shoulder pain, initiated by sitting up and walking, it's hard to be motivated to get up and move. It becomes a matter of doing what you can tolerate. Time is your friend, and it does get better.

Recovery after kidney donation Phase 2: First time up and out of bed.

Recovery after kidney donation Phase 2: First time up and out of bed.

Get Your Systems Moving

As you recover, there can be a bit of juggling required between pain medication, anesthesia, food and your digestive system. Anesthesia and pain medication can cause constipation, as well as nausea. Anti-nausea medication, a laxative, and stool softener help manage both.  

Since you haven't eaten since the night before surgery, you may be starving when you get to your room. For some people however, food is the last thing on their mind. If you're hungry and feeling ready to make up for lost meals, don't. Your digestive system has been asleep and takes time to wake up. Putting too much in before it's up and going can cause a big backup. The best approach is to drink lots of liquids and ease into eating.

Your lungs need attention as you recover, too. During surgery your breathing slows down and becomes shallower. Deep breathing exercises after surgery help refill the tiny sacs in your lungs and prevent pneumonia. Many hospitals have you do breathing exercises using a small, hand-held tool. 

Coughing helps clear your lungs, too. Coughing with an abdominal incision isn't much fun. Hugging a pillow against your belly when you cough takes the edge off the pain. 

Most people are in the hospital for two nights after surgery. But that can vary, depending on how your recovery is going. Some people may need an extra night or two. Other people do so well they have the option of going home after one night. But that doesn't mean you have to. Take advantage of being cared for!

Recovery after kidney surgery Phase 3: Happy to be taking it easy at home.

Recovery after kidney surgery Phase 3: Happy to be taking it easy at home.

Recovery at Home

Once you go home, the best thing you can do to help move your recovery along is to take it easy—don't push yourself. For many people, the toughest part of recovery is laying low. Naptime, early bedtime, binging on movies and reading are your friends when it comes to recovering well and healing.

The hospital sends you home with medications and detailed instructions about caring for yourself: 

Taking care of your incision

You need to keep your incision clean and dry. Tub baths, hot tubs, and swimming are off limits for two weeks. 

Activity while you recover

Hand over the keys—You'll be a passenger for any outings in the car—no driving for two weeks, or longer, if you're still taking narcotic pain medication. When you're wearing a seat belt, protect your incision with a small pillow under the lap portion of the seat belt. 

Easy on the abs—Rolling over and getting out of bed aren't going to be much fun initially. You soon realize all the ways you use your abdominal muscles because doing so, well, it hurts. But the pain gets better every day as your incision heals, the same way it does when you're recovering from putting your abs through a serious core workout. The area around your incision also may be numb or tingly for a while. 

Stick to walking—Walking is the one type of exercise you can do—but don't overdo. If you had a regular exercise routine—including yoga, pilates, running, biking and pretty much anything else—before surgery, you'll be taking a six-week break. And no lifting anything over 10 pounds. That means snuggling on the couch with young kids instead of holding them. 

Eat well—Your diet? No restrictions, so eat up—healthy food and drink, of course—to help your body heal. That means plenty of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and water.   

Recovery is different for everyone. It's pretty common to feel good enough to be back to work in two weeks. On average, you will feel back to your old self within four to six weeks, living a normal life with no restrictions. No, kidney donors don't have to give up alcohol (although moderation is recommended), and yes, women can become pregnant after donating a kidney. Most donors say they don't feel like they've had surgery and don't even think about the fact that they have one kidney.

Recovery after surgery to donate a kidney is different for everyone. Emily and Jim talk about  what they faced during recovery after donating a kidney.