A Cutting-Edge Option for Living Kidney Donors
Education & Research A new surgical procedure promises less scarring for would-be kidney donors, and it’s already changing lives.
Sheri Rice does not want anyone to put her on a pedestal for donating a kidney to her older brother. Simply put, she did it because she could—and she would do it again.
“If I could have given him my feet, I would,” says Sheri, who lives in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
Sheri’s brother had been ill for many years and needed to go on dialysis in 2012. She had always told him she wanted to give him one of her kidneys. When the time was right, they talked to staff at the UW Health Transplant Program to find a date that would work with both of their schedules.
“We literally scheduled it like we were scheduling lunch,” says Rice.
A more specific surgery
After going through extensive testing and review, Rice and her brother underwent surgery in March 2014. Rice and her surgeon, Tony D’Alessandro, M.D., decided a single-port nephrectomy (kidney removal) would be the best option for her. Commonly called a “belly-button nephrectomy,” this procedure is one of the newest trends in transplant surgery.
Traditionally, during a minimally invasive kidney removal, surgeons make four small incisions in the abdomen and side. The instruments are inserted through these incisions and the kidney is removed through a “bikini incision” below the underwear line.
"Transplant surgeons prefer a kidney from a living donor versus a deceased donor because it lasts longer, success rates are higher and better matching is possible."
During the belly-button procedure, the surgeon makes just one 3-to-4-inch incision straight through the middle of the belly button, unfolds it and puts a gel-like port behind it. The instruments are inserted through the port and then the kidney is removed through the same port.
The best fit
“The single port procedure is a nice option because we are able to perform the entire surgery through one small incision in the belly button,” says Josh Mezrich, M.D., the transplant surgeon who initiated the single-port nephrectomy program at UW Health. “In the majority of patients the incision is entirely hidden, and once it has healed there is virtually no scar. But this procedure isn’t the right option for everyone. We offer it to patients who are interested in the cosmetic benefit, and those who fit the criteria for this procedure.”
For Rice, 46, the belly-button procedure was exactly the right choice. “You wouldn't believe me if I told you I had surgery, because I have no scar to prove it,” she says. She even wore a bikini on her honeymoon just two months after the procedure.
State of demand
Currently, there are more than 100,000 people waiting for kidney transplants in the United States. Given a choice, transplant surgeons prefer a kidney from a living donor versus a deceased donor because it lasts longer, success rates are higher and better matching is possible. Transplant centers are working to make living kidney donation a viable option for as many patients as possible.
“The goal is to dispel the fear that some people have about living donation,” says Dr. D’Alessandro. “We do this by showing them we can perform the procedure safely and with minimal scarring. We also make it easier by participating in kidney exchanges, which are organized when a living donor is not a good match for his or her loved one. In these cases, Patient A’s loved one donates a kidney to Patient B, while Patient B’s loved one returns the favor for Patient A.”
The choice is personal
For her part, Rice is glad she had the opportunity to help her brother—scar or not. He was back at his job six weeks after his surgery and is now the proud owner of a functioning kidney.
“The whole experience was really life-changing,” Rice says.