Live Donor Liver Transplant
Information for Donors
Thinking about Live Liver Donation
This handout explains the process to persons who are thinking about donating part of their livers.
You will learn about the reasons for live donation, the assessment process, the operation, post-
operative care, and the alternatives, benefits, and risks of this surgery. Please take the time to
read this handout carefully. If you are interested in live liver donation, please contact the
transplant office at (608) 261-1996 or the nurse transplant coordinator working with your
With live liver donation, a piece of a
healthy person’s liver is transplanted
into the recipient. This can be done
because the liver regenerates itself in
both the donor and recipient after the
transplant. Both the donated segment
and the remaining section of the donor
liver will grow to normal size within
There is a severe shortage of organs for
transplant. This means that the wait for
a liver transplant can be many years. Patients may die while waiting for an organ. The UW
Transplant Program has long been a leader in trying to find new ways to increase the number of
good organs that can be used for transplant. Live liver donation is an option that can decrease
the waiting time for a patient in need of a liver transplant.
Giving someone part of your liver can be very rewarding and satisfying. Whatever you decide,
make the choice that is right for you.
Who can receive a liver from a live donor?
Patients in need of a liver transplant go through their own medical, surgical, and psychosocial
evaluation to find out if they are able to get a transplant. This is a process of weighing the risks
and benefits of the treatment for them, and the likelihood of a successful outcome. During their
evaluation, the transplant team discusses whether live donor liver transplant is an option for
Live donor transplant may not be recommended for all patients in need of a liver transplant–it is
a more complex surgery and one with different risks and slightly different outcomes. The
transplant team makes the decision about whether live donor transplant is an option. If live liver
donor transplant is going to happen, the transplant team, the person who needs the liver, and the
potential live donor all need to be willing.
The donor work-up does not start until the recipient has been listed for deceased donation. A
patient who has a potential living donor remains active on the waiting list while the living donor
work-up is being done. Their place on the waiting list is not affected.
Who can be a Living Donor?
▪ A living donor can be related or un-related, and must have an established relationship
with the person who needs the transplant.
▪ A donor is most often between 21 and 55 years of age. A donor must be old enough to
provide informed consent and young enough to have a healthy liver. Donors between 18-
20 years of age may be considered on a case by case basis.
▪ The donor’s main goal should be to help the recipient.
▪ Living donation must be voluntary.
▪ The donor must be in excellent physical and emotional health. The donor must be free of
major health issues.
▪ The donor must have a blood type that is compatible with the recipient’s blood type.
▪ The donor cannot have a body mass index over 35.
▪ A donor cannot have cancer.
▪ A donor cannot have any active infections.
▪ The donor must have normal or near normal liver function and have no history of any
▪ Anatomical differences occur among people. The donor’s liver must have a pattern of
blood supply and a distribution of bile ducts that are suitable for donation and transplant.
▪ The donor must have family or friends that can provide support before, during, and after
▪ The donor must be able to plan for up to three months off from work.
▪ The donor must be able to express understanding of the risks of living liver donation.
▪ A donor is required to have a primary care doctor.
▪ A donor is strongly encouraged to have his or her own health insurance. Lack of health
insurance may disqualify a person from being considered as a donor.
▪ Costs related to donating are billed to the recipient’s insurance. Any questions about the
financial aspects of donating can be direct to the transplant financial coordinator at (608)
▪ Keep in mind that not all patients that need liver transplant can receive a live donor liver.
What are some things to think about?
Donor safety is the most important issue during the assessment. Donation will not be offered if
the medical and surgical team believes that the risk of harm to the donor outweighs the expected
benefits to the recipient.
A different group of medical providers from those caring for the recipient evaluates the donor in
order to avoid conflict of interest. Donors are assigned a donor advocate team, whose members
are responsible for ensuring their interests are being met, and that they understand the risks and
benefits of living donation.
Previously undiagnosed medical conditions may be found during this medical assessment. A
new diagnosis could affect the ability to obtain insurance and/or cause emotional distress.
Your medical assessment, and every aspect of the donation process, is part of your personal,
confidential medical record. This means that the recipient cannot be told by the transplant team
anything about the work-up; including if you decide to walk away from donation.
As your assessment progresses and you better understand the donation process, you may decide
donation is not something you want to do. The transplant team helps you to stop the donation
process any time.
What are the benefits of living donor transplantation for the person who gets the
Live liver donor transplant offers several advantages to the recipient, most notably around
timing. With living donor transplant, the transplant can be done sooner, before the recipient’s
health worsens. Likewise, if the recipient has symptoms that are worse than their score reflects,
live donor transplantation can help the recipient get relief from these symptoms and return to a
better quality of life.
What are the costs for the donor?
There is no cost to the donor for the medical evaluation, the surgery, hospitalization, or after
care. This is also true for evaluation costs, even if the potential donor is not able to donate or
chooses not to donate. However, most donors do have some costs. These can include:
ξ Time off work that may or may not be paid
ξ Travel costs to get to Madison, or to stay in Madison. Ask the donor social worker about
a grant that may help cover these costs.
ξ Other costs, such as childcare or costs of snow removal when the donor is recuperating
and unable to do these tasks.
Are outcomes the same for live donor liver transplant versus deceased donor liver
Outcomes for the patient who receives a live donor liver are similar to the outcomes for the
patient who receives a deceased donor liver. But there is an increased risk of surgical
complications for patients who receive part of a liver from a live donor. Most complications can
be treated. Medical complications such as rejection or disease recurrence are not more or less
common for patients that receive a live donor liver. However, there is a risk that complications
will lead to graft loss or death.
Living Donor Evaluation
Step one: Contact the transplant office.
Call the liver transplant office at (608) 261-1996. You can also call the nurse transplant
coordinator working with the intended recipient.
The first step is to make sure the intended recipient is able to get a live donor liver transplant..
Blood type compatibility must be known before any other testing is done. The transplant office
can help you learn your blood type if needed.
Then, a nurse transplant coordinator will get some basic health information from you and review
it with a surgeon. It is your responsibility to submit an honest and complete health history
to the donor team.
General health maintenance and cancer screening tests should be completed through your
primary care doctor. This includes things such as dental work, PAP/pelvic exams and
mammography for females, PSA screening for men, colonoscopy screening if needed. We prefer
to have this testing completed before you come for your evaluation visit.
Step two: Work-up testing
The team assessing you is focused on protecting the donor’s interests and well-being. The
screening tests are planned by the transplant office. You will have a nurse transplant coordinator
that will help guide you through the work-up and answer any questions that you may have.
Your work-up can be complicated. There are many steps. It may take days, weeks, or
sometimes months to complete all of the needed tests and to confirm that live liver donation is a
fitting and safe option for everyone.
Testing is done in a step-wise approach to try to avoid having tests done that are not needed.
The remainder of your evaluation testing will be done at the UW Hospital. In general, we
attempt to get all of the testing done in two to three visits, but more time may be needed. We try
to allow for a one to two week reflection period between each visit. These visits will include the
1. A clinic visit with a liver transplant surgeon to discuss the surgery in detail. The surgeon
will discuss risks and benefits of live donation, perform a physical exam, and review your
2. Blood tests are done to confirm normal liver function and test for several viral diseases
including but not limited to Hepatitis B and C, HIV, and syphilis. Please note that some
viruses are reportable by law to the Public Health Department. You may be contacted by
Public Health if you have tested positive for these viruses.
3. You will be assigned to a donor advocate team. Each member of the team will help you to
better understand the risks and benefits of donation and ensure you are making an informed
choice. You will meet with each member of team separately. This includes:
a. Social worker - will cover the potential effects of donation on family, work and
activities, finances, and mood. The social worker will also discuss how to plan and
prepare for recovery.
b. Live donor advocate – talks with you about the decision to be an organ donor,
assesses whether you feel under pressure to donate, and whether you understand
potential risks as well as benefits. The advocate can also help you walk away from
donation if it doesn’t feel right. At our center, the living donor advocate is also the
c. Health psychologist- will meet with you to talk with you about how you have coped
with major medical issues in the past, and discuss ways this surgery might affect your
mental and emotional health. The health psychologist will also ask you to bring a
loved one to meet with them as well.
d. Transplant coordinator – is a nurse that helps guide you through the donation process.
They also help explain the risks and benefits to you, and will ensure that you are
making an informed choice.
e. Internal medicine physician- this is a doctor that is not part of the transplant team.
They will do a physical exam and help to make sure it is safe for you to donate.
4. A CT scan is done. This is a special x-ray that makes detailed pictures of internal organs
and bones. It uses a computer to create the images. The CT is very useful tool that helps
the doctors look closely at certain sites. Images obtained in the CT scan help the transplant
team decide if the donor’s anatomy is suitable for transplant surgery. This also helps to get
a map of your bile ducts to help guide the surgeons.
5. You will have an electrocardiogram and a chest x-ray to confirm normal heart and lung
6. You will meet with a dietician to review any diet or
nutritional needs or concerns related to donation.
7. A clinic visit with a liver disease specialist to review your
health history to ensure it is safe for you to give part of
the liver. They will also discuss the medical risks that
can go with a live liver donation. Sometimes, this doctor
will say that more testing needs to be done.
8. An echocardiogram is done. This is a safe and painless way to view the heart for problems.
Depending on your history, more heart testing may be needed. This testing may include an
exercise stress test.
9. A liver biopsy may be done to see if the liver tissue is healthy. During a liver biopsy, a
small piece of tissue is removed from the liver. It is checked under a microscope for signs
of disease. The biopsy takes only a few minutes, but the donor remains in the hospital for 4
hours after the test. The transplant team will provide more information to help prepare the
donor for the biopsy.
10. There will be a pre-anesthesia screening visit to review the medical testing and to assess risks
of anesthesia for you.
What if the tests are abnormal?
If the tests uncover something of concern, you will be informed and the assessment is stopped.
The results of the tests done during the assessment are sent to your home doctor with a request
that they follow up on these tests. Some abnormal findings can be treated, and after treatment
the assessment can be restarted.
It is the transplant team’s job to be careful about any would be risks to you. The team may
decide it is not possible for you to proceed for a number of reasons. If this happens, the reason is
discussed with you in detail.
Can I change my mind about being a donor?
Some people considering live donation may decide it is not a good choice for them after starting
the assessment. People going through live donor evaluation are supported in every decision they
make. At any stage, you may decide to stop the process, and this decision is honored and also
kept confidential. The reason will not be shared with the recipient.
You must be in direct contact with us about questions or concerns about their assessments. We
will not discuss information or test results family members, friends, recipients, etc., unless we
have your written okay to do so.
What other resources do you offer?
We offer a mentor program that links people, by phone, who have already donated an organ with
those who are considering donation. We believe our donors know better than anyone what
donation is actually like. They can be a valuable source of support, encouragement, and
information for those going through the process.
What are some of the main things to keep in mind while going through the evaluation?
There is a risk of transmitting infections via organ donation. You should report any fever,
flu-like illness, or neurological symptoms right away. If you have an active infection, you
should not donate part of the liver because this illness could be given to the recipient. To lessen
the risk of disease transmission we do blood tests to check for infections.
You should also:
▪ Take steps to avoid disease transmission through sexual contact by using condoms or
▪ Avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, which could transmit the West Nile virus infection.
The donor needs to wear long sleeve shirts and pants and use mosquito repellant prior to
a scheduled surgery.
This is because UNOS Policy 4.1.1 (Communication of Donor History) requires us to assess all
potential live donors for risk of infectious disease transmission. You will be asked to complete a
questionnaire with questions taken from the USPHS guideline about increased risk behavior.
This is a questionnaire similar to the one required for blood donation. For live donation, if you
are considered at higher risk, the transplant team is required to provide the transplant recipient a
general statement about your risk status per USPHS guidelines. The donor coordinator and the
donor social worker would talk with you about this ahead of time.
Avoid alcohol completely for 4 weeks before surgery and for 6 months after the surgery. The
medical team will inform you when it is safe to have alcohol again. Alcohol is toxic to the liver.
It is important that the liver be in the best condition before and after surgery.
Stop smoking: Smoking can lead to blood clots after surgery. As a result, we
strongly advise you to quit for at least one month before donation.
Birth control pills or hormone replacement medicine may need to be stopped. These can
lead to blood clots after surgery. If you are on these medicines, talk to your team about whether
you should stop them before surgery, and when they can be safely restarted.
Maintain a stable weight. It is very important that you do not have significant changes in your
weight, as this affects the volume of liver you will need after donation and may impact your
ability to safely donate. Be sure to notify your coordinator if you have significant changes in
your weight as you go through the evaluation process.
Can the evaluation be done more quickly?
Expedited workups for urgent living donation are only done in exceptional circumstances.
These are most often for an adult with acute liver failure or a child with rapidly deteriorating
liver function where there is an increased risk of death in a very short period of time if no
transplant is done. Expedited donor assessments are not the standard of care and require very
careful consideration. That consideration will include, but is not limited to:
▪ Donor safety remains most important. The transplant team will not reduce safety by taking
▪ Live donation for recipients with a poor prognosis will not be offered when it is believed that
the probability of recipient survival is less than 50%.
Step three: Schedule the surgery
If the evaluation is satisfactory, you are offered a target surgery date. This date depends on the
availability of resources and staff as well as your schedule and that of the recipient.
Surgical Risks and Complications
Live liver donation has major risks no matter how carefully the donor surgery and work-up is
done. It is vital that people who are thinking about being donors have a good understanding of
▪ Liver donation is a complicated process. Donors may die or have severe complications
happen even when the very best care is given. The risk of death is estimated a 0.5% (1 in
▪ The surgery is done through a large incision across the stomach that can cause mild,
permanent weakness and numbness in that area, and will leave a scar.
▪ The remaining liver grows back to its original size in about 6 weeks. It is expected that liver
function will return to normal. If it does not, this surgery could be fatal to the donor.
▪ Potential risks of this surgery include, but are not limited to, the list below.
Reaction to the anesthesia given during the surgery.
Stroke or heart attack.
Blood clots in the legs or lung.
Fluid around the lung or collapse of a lung.
Mild or severe infections, such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, or wound
Uncontrolled bleeding that would require blood transfusions.
Bile leakage or bile duct complications.
Injury to other organs such as the spleen, stomach, or intestine.
Injury to the remaining liver blood vessels or bile ducts resulting in liver failure and the
chance of needing a liver transplant.
Pain in the incision that doesn’t go away.
Problems with wound healing.
Bowel problems such as slow or blocked bowels.
Non-Medical Risks and consequences
Financial strain and potential impact on your job: You should plan on being off work for 8
to 16 weeks. It is possible that donating part of your liver will affect your job status long term.
Your social worker will talk with you about whether your job will be protected during this
recovery, and whether you will be able to get any pay.
Problems getting insurance in the future: This can include health insurance and life insurance.
Changes in your mood: This includes things such as adjustment disorders, anxiety, or
depression. This is especially true if your recipient has a hard time, medically, after the surgery.
Body image disturbance: You will have a scar on your stomach. Some people describe
changes in how they feel about their body because of the scar.
Lifestyle changes: In addition to impacting your job, donation may impact your activities and
family life during recovery. For example, you will not be able to drive for a while and will have
to limit what you lift.
The Donor Surgery
The target surgery date is always tentative and subject to change
▪ You may opt out of donation at any time.
▪ The liver transplant program may change the target date if the program believes that it is
necessary to delay the transplant.
Preparing for Surgery
About 2 weeks before your surgery, you will come to UWHC transplant clinic for the pre-
operative evaluation. You will receive a reminder in the mail for this appointment.
During this evaluation, you will have an updated physical, blood tests and an anesthesia
appointment. You will be taught deep breathing and coughing exercises. This helps prevent
If you do not live nearby, hotel lodging the night before surgery will be provided. If you need to
travel by airplane to Wisconsin we ask that you complete your air travel at least 2 days before the
surgery. Sitting in an airplane for a prolonged time increases the risk of blood clots during and
after the surgery.
The evening before surgery, your evening meal should be clear liquids only. You will take
a medicine to clean out your bowels. Then, you will shower using a special soap. You
should not eat or drink anything after midnight.
The Day of Surgery
The day of your surgery you will be admitted to the hospital.
While in the First Day Surgery Center an intravenous catheter (IV) will be inserted into one of
your veins. Through the IV, placed in the arm or hand, you will be given fluids.
About an hour before surgery, you will get a shot. This will relax you and dry the secretions in
your lungs. It will make your mouth feel dry, and you will become
sleepy. After the shot, we will ask you to stay in bed.
During surgery, a small rubber tube (Foley catheter) will be placed
in your bladder. This allows us to watch your urine output. It
remains in place until the day after surgery.
The surgery will last 6-8 hours. An incision will be made across
your upper abdomen. The liver will be cut. A portion of the liver
will be prepared for transplant into the recipient.
At the end of your operation, the incision will be closed and a
temporary drain (plastic tube) may be placed to exit through the
skin. This will be removed in 3 – 5 days.
It is possible, although very rare, that the surgeons may find reasons not proceed with the donor
surgery and the incision is closed.
You will be in the recovery room for 1 – 2 hours before being taken to your room on the
What to expect while in the hospital
You can expect to be in the hospital for 5 – 7 days.
When you arrive in your room, you will still be quite sleepy. You will still have the IV and
Foley catheter in place. Your nurse will take your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature, and
measure your urine output often.
You will be asked to cough and deep breathe at least hourly while you are awake. Anesthesia
can increase your lung secretions. These can stay in your lungs and may lead to pneumonia. By
deep breathing, air reaches the area where the secretions collect and coughing helps to bring
them up. A small plastic tool called an incentive spirometer will be used to help you take deep
Most often you will get up and walk about six hours after you return to your room. Walking will
help prevent many problems that can occur after surgery, including pneumonia, blood clots and
constipation. You should walk at least every 1 – 2 hours during the first few weeks.
You may be given elastic socks (TED stockings) to help the blood flow to and from your legs to
help prevent blood clots.
Your doctor will decide when you can resume eating. Surgery and pain medicines can slow
the wave-like action of your bowels for a short time. As bowel activity and sounds return and
you start to pass gas, you will be given liquids. Slowly you will advance to eating regular food.
Walking as early as you are able will help your bowel function return to normal.
If drainage tubes were inserted during your surgery these are removed after the first few days.
You should look at your incisions daily. Watch for signs of infection such as redness,
swelling, or drainage.
Your doctor will prescribe pain medicine for you. Until you are able to drink, you will
receive it through the IV. The pain medicine should be taken to help decrease incision pain. It
will be easier to walk and take deep breaths if your pain is under control. Once you are able to
eat, you will take a pain pill.
Blood tests are done to check your liver function.
You may develop mild jaundice after the donor surgery. The jaundice most often improves
without any treatment. If it does not, you may require more tests.
You are started on a blood thinner after surgery, which requires a daily shot for up to 2 weeks.
Donor Follow-up Care
After you leave the hospital
▪ You will come to the transplant clinic for a doctor’s visit in about 2-4 weeks. At your clinic
visit, you will have blood work done and will be seen by your transplant surgeon. If you live
far away, you will need to stay in Madison at least until this first visit. Based on your
recovery, you may be asked to stay longer.
▪ You will go home with pain pills to help control your pain. Your doctors will advise
you on over-the-counter pain pills that you can use as well.
▪ You may continue to need a blood thinner through a daily shot for two weeks.
▪ You will come to our transplant clinic again at 4-6 months, one year and two years
▪ You should see your regular home doctor yearly.
▪ You should plan on being off work for 8 to 16 weeks.
▪ You will have activity restrictions such as not being able to drive or lift heavy objects for
▪ It may take 3 to 4 months before you are able to return to a normal routine and normal
energy level. It will be important to have a specific plan in place before the surgery of
who will be able to help and support you during this time.
▪ It is common to have a “letdown” or mild depression while recovering. This most often
improves in a short time. The donor social worker is available to talk. Please contact the
transplant program for help.
Transplant office number (608) 263-1384
Fax Number (608) 262-5624
Main Hospital number 1-800-323-8942.
Ask for the transplant office telephone number listed above or the department you want to reach.
The Gift of Life
Donating part of your liver is not an easy choice. It is not for everyone. A person should
consider the emotional, physical, and financial factors. The choice to donate should be made
free from any feelings of family pressure, responsibility, need for recognition, or financial gain.
Feeling anxious and afraid is very normal and common. It is our hope that this handout helps put
things into perspective for you. Our entire staff is happy to answer any questions.
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor.
This is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because
each person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team
when using this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 1/2016 University of
Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing.