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How Do I Ask Someone to Donate a Kidney?

EJ Tamez

If you are experiencing kidney failure and are looking for a living kidney donor, one of the most important aspects of your donor search is learning how to ask someone to be your kidney donor.

Donating a kidney is a big commitment, so it makes sense to ask the people closest to you first. According to data from the Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network, for all living donor kidney transplants to date, approximately 60% of living kidney donors have been biologically related to the transplant recipient and 70% have been family members.

Start your donor search with your close family: ask spouses or partners, siblings, parents, children, cousins, aunts and uncles—any member of the family you can think of, even if they are not someone you see often.

In addition to who you ask, it’s also important how you ask. Asking the question in the right way can make the request seem reasonable and manageable rather than scary and intimidating. It’s almost never the best idea to come right out and ask someone, “Will you donate your kidney?” Instead, start by asking them to take a small first step to help you.

For family members, there’s no need to come right out and ask someone to be your donor when you don’t even know if they are healthy enough to donate. Instead, simply ask them if they would be willing to be tested to see if they are medically qualified to donate.

Some people may not be aware that they can donate a kidney while still alive. For those people, it’s important to mention that everyone has two kidneys but only needs one to live, and that living kidney donors can live long, healthy lives. (For more information, see our blog post Does Donation a Kidney Shorten Your Life?)

Another misconception is that someone has to be a blood or tissue type match in order to be your donor. In fact, new technology and the National Kidney Registry’s Voucher Program enable any medically qualified donor to donate on behalf of their intended recipient, regardless of whether they are a medical match. (For more information, see our blog post What if I Want to Donate a Kidney to Someone but I’m Not a Match?)

In some cases, you may not find any potential donors in your family. That can be disheartening, but it’s not uncommon, and you shouldn’t let it deter your search for a donor.

That’s what happened to Donor Search Expert Coach Mike Saylor, who received a living donor transplant in 2011 from old high school football teammate. “It was a rocky road because first I went to my family,” Mike says. He has three siblings, and none were able or willing to donate. His sister and one brother could not donate, and the other brother just didn’t feel comfortable donating a kidney.

“At first I got mad about that, but it’s just one of those things,” Mike says. “You can’t take it personally, you just have to let it go and move on. After I moved outside my family circle, I had a lot of people wanting to help out.”

After your family, the next group of potential donors is your friends. To those people, you can say: “I’m asking all my friends whether they are willing to be tested to see if they are medically qualified to donate. Is that something you would consider?”

As with family members, be ready to explain that living kidney donation is possible and safe, and that they don’t need to be a match to donate. In addition, you may want to point out that getting tested does not obligate them to become a donor—they may opt out of the process at any time.

The next level in your “circle of influence” is acquaintances—people you aren’t close to but who know you casually or at least know who you are. This could include coworkers, members of any clubs or community groups you or your family members belong to, church members, former classmates and teachers, former sports teammates and coaches, and people who share your hobbies or activities.

The recommended “ask” for this group of potential donors is even less direct: “I am looking for a kidney donor. Do you know anybody who may be willing to be tested to see if they are medically qualified to donate?”

The final group of potential doors is strangers, which includes every single person in the world. You may think you have less chance of getting someone who doesn’t even know you to help you in your search, but in fact many kidney patients receive living donor transplants from strangers who heard about their need for a kidney by watching a story on the news, visiting a donor search website, or seeing a social media post.

When talking to strangers about your need for a kidney, it’s best not to ask them to be a donor at all. Instead, ask them for help spreading the word, which is a low-effort, no-commitment way for them to feel like they are helping you. If they themselves are interested in donating, they will tell you. Suggested script for strangers: “I am looking for a kidney donor. Can you help me find a living donor by sharing my story?”

Remember: your donor search is not over until you have received your transplant. Keep reaching out to as many people as you can, because you never know where your donor will come from until you find them.