Living liver donation

You can trust our experts in living liver donation

Not all patients need a full liver from someone who has passed away. Some patients undergo a transplant to receive a piece of liver from a living donor. A leader in liver transplant for more than three decades, UW Health can make a life-saving difference for you.
Meiyee 25694-0599

Overview

What we do

A transplant from a living liver donor is the best option for people who need a liver transplant. At the UW Health Transplant Center, we honor living liver donors for their ultimate act of giving.

As a living liver donor, you will save a life and reduce the number of people on the deceased donor waitlist.

Living liver donation happens when you give part of your liver to someone who has a liver that is not working. During the surgery, a portion of your liver is removed and placed into the body of the recipient whose own liver was removed. Both your liver and the recipient's liver will grow to the correct size within three months. You and the recipient can live well during this time, and soon both you and the recipient will be able to return to your regular lives.

Patient story

Tommy stepped in to save the life of his sister, Sydney, as her living liver donor.

Why choose UW Health?

Our liver transplant program began in 1984, and our living liver donor program began in 2000. Both are widely respected for the expertise of our surgeons and our outstanding patient outcomes.

We are a Center of Excellence for most insurance networks, a certified living liver donor center for adults and children and the only adult living donor program in Wisconsin. U.S. News & World Report ranks University Hospital as Wisconsin's top hospital.

About

Learn about living liver donation

Living liver donation is an opportunity for you to greatly improve someone’s life. To the recipient, you will always be a hero.

Introduction to living liver donation

Deceased donation rates continue at about the same pace as in the last 10 years, but the number of people who need a transplant continues to grow. Living donation is the best way to save more lives.

Living donation can happen as soon as a donor is found, approved and ready to donate. Getting a liver donation quickly is important for many people who are waiting for a liver transplant. Living with liver disease is very difficult and livers from a deceased donor are given to the sickest patients waiting. Almost 14,000 people are waiting. Getting a liver from a living donor allows patients to get a liver before having to become so ill. Other reasons why a living liver donation is better are:

  • The recipient will get transplanted sooner and won’t become sicker while they are waiting for a deceased donor liver.

  • Living liver transplants are scheduled which makes recovery easier.

  • The liver is a great match and from a person who has been tested to ensure they are very healthy.

  • Recipients of a living donor liver have better survival rates than those who receive deceased donor livers.

A donor and recipient do not have to be related. They just need compatible blood types.
If you are older than age 18 and in good physical and emotional health you can apply to be a living donor. Donors are often family members or close friends, but it's not unusual for a stranger to be a good match. The best matches happen when the donor and recipient have similar body size and organ anatomy. A liver from a younger person will regenerate faster. We offer two options for living liver donation.

Learn if you can be a living liver donor

Most expenses, including your donation evaluation, tests and surgery, are paid by the recipient's insurance. You will pay for your own travel expenses including food, gasoline and hotel. You will need time off from work and may not have paid leave for this use. Our social workers tell you what costs to expect, share information about tax benefits and explain ways to get help with expenses.

Not everyone who considers donation can or will donate. Our Independent Living Donor Advocate represents you, the donor, to make sure your decision remains private. They are responsible for representing your wishes, discussing any issues and being your advocate.

If you would like to speak to someone who was a living donor, please call us at (608) 263-1384 and ask about our living liver donor mentor program. Our mentors are an important source of information and support, and we will work to match you with someone with a background and experience like yours.

How to find a living liver donor

These tools will help people who are seeking a living liver donor. Share this information with anyone who wants to learn more about the process. You can also share our website: uwhealth.org/living-donor

From the first step, to donation surgery, to follow up care, our living donation team takes excellent care of our generous living donors.

It's easy to assume that if you wanted to help, you would just offer to donate. In fact, you may be waiting to be asked or might think someone else is already going to donate. You may want to do some reading about living liver donation. We support communication that clearly states that a living liver donor is needed.

If you or a loved one needs a liver transplant, quickly tell your close family and friends that a living donor liver transplant is the best option. Some people who need a liver transplant have a living donor champion - a person or people who help get the message out further. Our education materials will improve their chances of finding a living donor.

Living donor champion

Patients and living donor champions should let people know why a living donor transplant is needed.

  1. Explain why a liver transplant is needed and how liver disease is affecting the patient's life.

  2. State why living donation is the best option. Read our Introduction to living liver donation to learn important facts.

  3. Highlight that a living donor does not have to be related to the recipient or have the same blood type. Our options for living liver donation explain the ways anyone who is healthy enough to donate can donate.

There are many ways to share the story:

  • Carry our wallet card and give it to people so they can learn more

  • Telephone friends/start a phone tree

  • Make a video

  • Post a flier

  • Local newspaper story

  • Radio ad

  • Billboard

  • Write a message on a car window or t-shirts, get creative!

Request living liver donation education materials

Options for living liver donation

There are two options for living liver donation: Direct donation and non-directed donation. Remember, a living donor and recipient do not have to be related. They just need compatible blood types.

If you know who the recipient of your donation is, it is a direct donation. The recipient may be your family member, friend or someone from your community.

Non-directed donation happens if you do not know who will receive your liver donation. Your liver donation goes to the person it best matches who is most in need.

The living liver donation experience

Living liver donation at UW Health is an exciting experience and we want you to understand the entire process.

Read our living liver donation website and discuss it with your support system.

We use this online screening tool to gather information about your health to decide if you are healthy enough to donate a portion of your liver. The tool asks questions about current and past health, family history and risk factors. Our team will review the responses and contact you. If you learn you are not able to donate, there are many other ways you can help. (See Donor Champion)

Evaluation tests happen at University Hospital in Madison, Wis. You will have 2-3 visits, or more if necessary. We schedule 1-2 weeks between visits, to give you time to think about donation. We are very careful and thorough in this evaluation. If you are very eager to donate you may question the amount of testing. Remember that our team must consider everything they know about your health when we decide if you can safely donate.

There are three parts to the evaluation:

  1. Medical tests

    • Health history and physical exam

    • Blood and urine test

    • Chest x-ray

    • 3D reconstruction CT/CAT scan and MRCP of abdomen

    • Electrocardiogram (EKG) to record the electrical signals in the heart

    • Echocardiogram

    • Other tests/consults as needed

  2. Meetings with living donor team members

    • Social worker

    • Hepatologist (Liver specialist)

    • Transplant surgeon

    • Internal medicine physician

    • Dietician

    • Transplant nurse coordinator

    • Independent living donor advocate

  3. Education about living donation

    • Donation process

    • Risks

    • Donation options

    • Surgical procedure

    • Pain management

    • After-surgery care

After evaluation, our living donor team will review the results of all your tests. This special team has vast experience with living donation. They decide if donation is a good option for your or if more tests are needed. We will share information with you, answer your questions and discuss options for donation.

You are approved to donate a portion of your liver if you are medically approved, emotionally prepared and have no psychosocial risks to donation. If you are not approved to donate, it’s because our experts have decided that the medical, emotional and/or psychosocial risks of living donation are too high. You may experience a range of emotions including sadness, disappointment, relief and/or confusion. Remember, the time and effort put into this process is a powerful act of support. Transplant recipients often say that what was most meaningful to them was their loved one’s desire to help. You can still help the recipient by being their donation champion and/or by providing family and/or pet support, meals, driving assistance and/or companionship for the donor or recipient.

This is the time when you will make your final decision about donating a portion of your liver. You can choose to not donate at any time in the process. Our independent living donor advocate is ready to talk with you if your decision to donate changes. Privacy is always protected, including all your decision-making concerns. We will also discuss financial considerations, caregiving and family roles and the support you will need while healing. We will also discuss body image, because you will have scars on your abdomen and some donors say they feel different about their body and overall physical appearance. (Donors can speak with their surgeon to discuss options to lessen scarring.) Some donors also experience mood changes and feel depressed or struggle to cope while they are recovering and are limited in normal daily activities. Some donors have changes in relationships with their family or the recipient of their liver.

UW Health has different ways a living donor can donate. Some may be better for you or the recipient. These options allow you to donate even if your blood type, anatomy and/or timeline for surgery does not match with your recipient.

After the donation decision is made, we will schedule your surgery date. Before surgery, you will meet with the medical team, who will check for any changes in your health. They will teach responsible pain management, discuss ways to improve your recovery and answer any questions.

You must bring these things to the hospital:

  • Any medications you take every day

  • Comfortable clothes that will be loose around the incision

  • Walking shoes

We suggest you bring:

  • Personal and comfort items such as toothpaste, shampoo, pillows

  • Books or other things to stay busy

Do not bring any items of value.

The big day! This is an outline of your surgery day:

  1. Arrival at University Hospital

  2. First Day Surgery, third floor near F elevators

    • Drink recovery juice three hours prior to OR time

    • Meet surgeon/anesthesiology

    • Get IV placed

  3. Operating Room 6-8 hours

    • Transfer to operating table from hospital bed

    • Positioning with pillows and blankets

    • Put to sleep for surgery

    • Catheter placement

  4. Recovery Room ≥ 1 hour

    • Wake up

    • Adequate pain control

    • Memory may be fuzzy

  5. TLC (Intensive care unit)

  6. Day of surgery

    • Up and walking

    • Pain management

    • Deep breaths/coughing

    • Interrupted sleep for overnight vital checks

  7. Transplant Unit B4/6

  8. Remainder of stay (1-5 days)

    • Remove catheter

    • Walking 3-5 times/day

    • Bowel movements

    • Checking vitals

    • Pain management

    • Progress diet: From ice chips to solid food

You donate either the right lobe or the left lobe of your liver. The decision is based on the size of your liver and the recipient's body size.

This is a safe procedure, but all surgeries have risks. Risks include:

  • Significant bleeding (rare)

  • Blood transfusion (rare)

  • Return to the operating room (very rare, <1 in 100)

  • Wound complications (rare)

  • Death during the surgery (very low, estimated at 2 in 1,000 individuals)

You will recover on the transplant unit at University Hospital. Common issues for donors include bloating, nausea and tiredness. You will be up and walking very quickly and can return to a regular diet. Our team follows a rapid recovery program. With responsible pain management, you will go home 5-7 days after donation. Before you leave the hospital, you will be scheduled for your first follow-up visit at the transplant clinic, which happens 1-2 weeks after donation.

You may experience soreness with activity, a poor appetite and unusual bowel habits. This checklist includes important reminders to improve recovery:

  • Take as much time off from work as is needed, depending on job role

  • Use responsible pain management and don't drive while on narcotic pain medications

  • Go for a walk, but limit strenuous activities

  • Avoid constipation by eating a diet high in fiber

  • Rest

  • Contact the transplant team if needed

You will recover at your own pace. Most donors return to their regular lifestyle by 8-10 weeks after donation. We encourage you to be committed to your health and wellness. We recommend a healthy diet and exercise to support good health and liver recovery. Six months after donation, and annually near the donation date, you must complete blood and urine tests and have your blood pressure checked. For your lifetime, we recommend that you have an annual physical, including blood pressure monitoring.

Man and woman smiling in a gym.
Learn more
Living liver donation

Find out if you can become a living liver donor.

Meet our team

Highly skilled experts

Our team honors living donors and recognizes their generous gift. We are compassionate to your needs and want to support your decision. We are committed to your health and will work to provide customized care.

Your living liver donation team includes experts in hepatology (liver medicine), living donation and liver transplantation. Our certified transplant nurse coordinators, social workers, financial counselors and living donor advocate also provide ongoing support.

As part of an academic medical center, we are constantly researching and improving every aspect of living liver donation and transplantation. We provide thorough education to you and your support team. We are dedicated to giving you the best living liver donation experience.

Our providers

Locations

Top-ranked care close to you

We offer living liver donation services and surgery at University Hospital in Madison.

Loading...
  • University Hospital - Transplant
    • 600 Highland Ave. / Madison, WI
    • (608) 262-5420
    • Closed now
    •  
      View hours, services and more

Patient stories

Inspiring living donor stories

Our patients share their living liver donation stories.

Baby Lucas smiling with his mother.
Lucas Hougom
'Our gratitude is immeasurable.'

When Jenny and Tyler Hougom and their three-year-old daughter Valerie welcomed baby Lucas to their world in August 2019, he appeared strong and healthy, but within days Lucas was diagnosed with congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV) a common virus that rarely causes problems in most healthy people, but can cause hearing loss and neurologic issues in newborns.

John Nelson smiling.
John Nelson
‘It’s such an incredible gift that you can give another person.’

Even though two decades have passed since John Nelson gave part of his liver to his cousin, Cindy, he still becomes emotional when talking about it. His selfless act became an important part of his personal history, influencing the choices he makes and the causes he supports.

Image of Jennifer Boudreau
Jenny Boudreau
‘This is the most selfless thing I’ve ever done in my life’

Jenny Boudreau’s mother-in-law, Michelle, was sick with liver disease for several years. Her family had no idea just how sick she was until her husband, Dennis, told them at a wedding. After she agreed to be evaluated for a liver transplant, Michelle’s immediate family members were tested to see whether they could donate part of their liver to her. None of them was a match. Then Jenny decided to step up.

Image of Casey McDermott
Casey McDermott
‘It was an opportunity to do some good’

An outsider might wonder why Casey McDermott chose to donate part of his liver to a woman he had only met a couple of times. He was 24 and had recently moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, to pursue a master's degree in toxicology. He was in his prime, but he chose to take a break and give the gift of life. Casey's reasoning was simple — "She needed a liver, and I had one."

Forrest 413565-3333.jpeg
Brian Forrest
‘At first, I assumed it was unlikely that my liver would be a match for Richard’

Brian Forrest had been thinking a lot about his 62-year-old cousin Richard Gillette, who was suffering from end-stage liver disease. As sick as Richard was in the spring of 2019, he was unlikely to receive a new liver from a deceased donor in time to save his life. Too many people were ahead of him on the transplant list, and most of them were even sicker.

Landen Wilke scaling a tree.
Landen Wilke
‘Now, I have no limits at all, and I am completely back to the way I was before the surgery.’

In Fall 2016, Landen Wilke was living the good life, and the possibilities for his future were endless. He was in a serious relationship with the woman who is now his wife. He was attending school at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, Wis., to study electric power and distribution - and had discovered he loved it. But then Landen learned his aunt, Julie Hess, was seriously ill with liver disease and needed a living liver donor.

Alex Potratz smiling outdoors.
Alex Potratz
‘It worked out very well in my case. It really helped out my mother.’

Alex Potratz is not the kind of guy who becomes agitated very easily. So, when he saw that his mother, Margaret, was becoming more and more ill with cirrhosis and would eventually need a new liver, he was very calm about what he felt needed to happen — he wanted to donate part of his liver to her.

Patti Jackson smiling outdoors.
Patti Jackson
‘I didn’t do it for the thanks and praise. I did it to give my brother hope and life.’

For Patti Jackson, the hardest part about becoming a living liver donor was not the surgery itself — it was convincing her brother and recipient to let her do it.

Father and daughter smiling.
Sam and Aviva
‘I am grateful I still have her to talk to and give a hug and kiss to whenever I see her.’

Sam Gellman was sure he was going to lose his 14-year-old daughter, Aviva. Within just a week, she was diagnosed with liver disease, and was admitted to American Family Children’s Hospital where she soon became comatose due to the toxins entering her bloodstream.

Patient and support services

Resources for living liver donors

We offer many helpful resources for before and after your living liver donation surgery.

Frequently asked questions

Learning opportunities

Stay connected and promote donation

Patient resources

National leaders in transplant care

View more information important to every transplant patient.

Transplant services