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When Your Child Needs a Kidney Transplant

What Is a Kidney Transplant?

Kidneys are vital organs that filter waste, extra fluid, and salt from the body. If they stop working, it's called kidney failure. Someone with kidney failure must go on dialysis or get a kidney transplant.

A kidney transplant is an operation where doctors put a new kidney in the body of someone whose own kidneys no longer work. One healthy kidney can do the work of two failed kidneys.

Because people can survive with just one kidney, a living person can give a healthy kidney to someone with kidney failure. This is called being a donor. A kidney also can come from a donor who has recently died, but the wait for this kind of donated kidney can take a year or more.

Most kidney transplants are successful. People who have kidney transplants will take medicines for the rest of their lives to prevent the body from rejecting the kidney. Rejecting means that the body's immune cells destroy the new kidney because they sense that it's foreign.

But aside from that, many kids and teens who have kidney transplants go on to live normal, healthy lives after they recover from surgery.

What Are the Different Types of Kidney Transplants?

There are two kinds of kidney transplants depending on who donates the new kidney.

A living-donor transplant is when someone gets a kidney from a person who is still alive. It's usually from a relative or close friend, but sometimes strangers donate.

A non-living-donor transplant is when people donate their kidneys for transplant after they die. This requires people who need kidneys to put their names on a waiting list until a donor is found.

What Happens Before a Kidney Transplant?

If your child needs a kidney transplant, your first step is to visit a transplant hospital. The health care team will check to make sure that your child is healthy enough to have surgery and take the medicines needed after it. This may include blood tests, X-rays, and other tests, and can take a few weeks.

If the transplant team decides your child is a good candidate, the next step is to find a kidney. In some cases, kidneys come from a close relative or friend who has the same type blood and tissue and whose organs are similar in size to the recipient's.

If a living donor isn't found, your child's name will go on a waiting list until a kidney from a non-living donor is available. The need for new kidneys is far greater than the number donated, so this can take a long time.

You'll stay in close touch with the doctors and the rest of the health care team. Make sure they know how to reach you at all times. When a kidney is located, you'll need to move quickly. Keep a bag packed and be ready to go to the transplant hospital at a moment's notice.

While you wait for a transplant, keep your child as healthy as possible. That way, he or she will be ready for transplant surgery when the time comes. Help your child:

  • eat healthy foods and get regular exercise
  • take all medicines as directed
  • keep all medical appointments, especially if your child is on dialysis

Tell your doctor and the transplant center right away if is any change in your child's health.

What Happens During a Kidney Transplant?

The doctors will take a blood sample so they can do an antibody cross-match test. This is done to find out if your child's immune system will accept the new kidney. If the test comes back negative, the kidney is acceptable, and the transplant can begin.

In the operating room, your child will get general anesthesia to sleep through the operation. Then the surgeon makes a small cut in the lower belly, just above your child's hips. The new kidney is placed, and the surgeon attaches its blood vessels (artery and vein) to blood vessels in the lower body. Then the new kidney's ureter (a tube that carries pee from the kidney to the bladder) is connected to the bladder.

In most cases, the old kidneys stay in place. Failed kidneys aren't removed unless they cause problems like high blood pressure or an infection. Kidney transplant surgery usually takes about 3 to 4 hours.

What Happens After a Kidney Transplant?

After kidney transplant surgery, your child will spend a few days (or up to a week) in the hospital to recover. The health care team will watch closely to make sure there are no complications from the surgery, such as bleeding or infection.

You and your child will learn about the medicines needed to keep the body from rejecting the new kidney. These are called immunosuppressants. Taking them can make your child more likely to get infections, especially in the days right after surgery. So keep your child away from sick people, and have everyone at home wash their hands well and often.

For the first few weeks after surgery, you'll see the doctor often to make sure the new kidney is working well. If your child gets a fever or soreness in the area of the transplant, tell a doctor right away. These could be signs that the body isn't accepting the new kidney. If the new kidney is rejected or fails, your child can go on dialysis or possibly have another transplant.

But with surgery and immunosuppressant medicines, the success rate of kidney transplants is very high.

How Can I Help My Child?

Having a chronic condition can be hard for kids. Dialysis, surgery, and immunosuppressant therapy can add to the stress. Talk to your child about these changes and how you will work them into your routine. Make sure to find time to do fun things together with family and friends.

For teens, immunosuppressant therapy can be a challenge. These medicines can cause:

  • more acne
  • weight gain
  • excess facial and body hair in women (called hirsutism)

These side effects are a major reason why teens are at risk for not taking their medicines after a transplant. This can be dangerous and even lead to rejection of the new kidney. So be sure to talk about the importance of taking all medicines as directed.

To help:

  • Be there for your child to talk to.
  • If your child needs more support, make an appointment with a therapist or counselor.
  • Find a support group. They're a great way for kids and teens to relieve stress and connect with others who are going through similar challenges. Online resources include the National Kidney Center's Facebook page and Transplant Living.
  • Get support for yourself too. It can be a huge relief to talk about your feelings with other people who know what you're going through. Ask the transplant care team if they know of support groups for families.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: 01-08-2018

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