Skip to Main Content
Research & Innovation

Living Organ Donation: Yale Medicine Explains

July 20, 2021

Poster for video

Living organ donation—when a healthy person donates a kidney or part of their liver to someone in need—has been an important medical advance. The technique saves lives because it helps reduce wait times for the people who need transplants.  

“There are many people eligible to be living donors today, and one of the points that we try to communicate is how easy and safe it is to become one,” says David Mulligan, MD, FACS, Chief of Transplantation Surgery and Immunology.  

Donating a kidney, for instance, may save the life of one of the approximately 100,000 individuals on the waiting list. Though many people donate a kidney to a loved one or someone they know, this is not always the case. According to Dr. Mulligan, it is estimated that about 80% of the people on that list have a suitable donor somewhere in the world.  

For liver donation, the process is somewhat more complex. Because the liver is able to regenerate on its own over a period of six to eight weeks, a liver donor goes on to live a safe, healthy life after donation. But it’s harder to match a liver than a kidney. Beyond blood type, the size and anatomy of the donor liver must be a good match for the recipient. This narrows down the list of acceptable transplants—only about 20 to 25% of those on the waiting list have a suitable match. Still, 16,000 people in the U.S. today are waiting for a liver.  

According to Dr. Mulligan, the risks of donating an organ via living organ donation are the same as having any major surgery; on the recipient’s side, the procedures to transplant the organs can range from laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, to major surgeries. Yale Medicine is well-equipped to handle this range, with a 100% success rate for living organ donors and a 98% success rate for the recipients of the organs.  

Dr. Mulligan recalls a recent success story, where a woman with cirrhosis developed end-stage liver failure. Though her son volunteered to be a living liver donor, doctors determined that he wasn’t a good match. But when the son’s best friend heard about the problem, he volunteered. As a living donor, he was in the hospital just four days. And six days after her transplant, the  mother had regained much of her energy and vibrancy.