what caregivers can expect after kidney transplant

A kidney transplant can save the life of someone you love who has end-stage kidney disease (kidney failure). Whether it’s a family member or friend, it’s natural to want to step up and be there for them after surgery.

But being a caregiver for someone who’s had kidney transplant surgery is a big task and a big commitment. Here’s what you should know about this critical role, what to expect, and what you can do to ensure a positive experience.

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What Is Kidney Transplant Surgery?

During kidney transplant surgery, doctors replace a person’s diseased kidney with a healthy kidney from a deceased donor or living donor. They connect blood vessels between the donated kidney and the recipient. They also connect the tube (ureter) that moves urine from the kidney to the bladder.

Kidney transplant surgery usually takes between two and four hours. After surgery, most recipients spend between five and ten days in the hospital.

Healthcare professionals care for kidney transplant recipients while they remain in the hospital. Your loved one will:

  • Begin taking anti-rejection medicines (immunosuppressants) so their body won’t reject the new kidney.
  • Get out of bed and begin to move in the day or two after surgery.
  • Have monitoring to make sure the donated kidney produces urine.

When the healthcare team says your loved one is ready to go home, they can leave the hospital. That’s when your role as caregiver really begins.

Caring for Someone After Kidney Transplant

Caring for someone you love after they have kidney transplant surgery is an important job. At times, the responsibilities may feel overwhelming.

Someone who’s had a kidney transplant needs 24-hour-a-day care when they first get home. After surgery, they must:

  • Avoid driving until their doctor clears them to drive.
  • Not lift children, heavy objects, or pets to protect their surgical incision as it heals.
  • Pay attention to how they feel, their blood pressure, and the amount of urine they’re producing.
  • Take all medications their doctor tells them to take.

Getting organized and using resources available to you through friends, family, and the transplant team can help. With planning, you can focus on keeping your loved one well. As a caregiver, you’ll need to:

Note the details

Use a calendar, scheduling app, or spreadsheet to help you stay on top of time-sensitive duties like:

  • Follow-up appointments with the transplant team. Expect your loved one to have weekly doctor’s visits and lab work at first. They’ll continue to have follow-up appointments throughout the first few months after surgery. As their recovery continues, these visits will become less frequent.
  • Meals and dietary requirements. Talk to the transplant team about special dietary needs. You may need to prepare low-salt, fiber-rich foods. Your loved one may also need to drink extra fluids to help the new kidney function well.
  • Medication dosing schedule. It’s important that your loved one take all medications prescribed on the schedule the transplant team provides. A calendar or spreadsheet can help you track all medications.

Practice patience

Watching someone you care about experience pain can be difficult. Expect your loved one to be sore in the weeks after surgery. They may also be extremely tired (fatigued) and not have much energy.

They may not feel like moving around much. But it’s important to follow the transplant team’s recommendations for activity. You can help by encouraging them to get up and move around slowly to aid healing.

Some people have strong emotions after transplant surgery. They may feel sad or short-tempered. You can help by:

  • Listening.
  • Offering support and encouraging words.
  • Talking to the transplant team if your loved one doesn’t seem to be coping well or shows signs of depression.

Protect against infection

Infection is a serious concern after kidney transplant surgery. Anti-rejection drugs weaken the immune system, making it easier to get sick.

It’s important to do everything you can to protect the person you’re caring for. You should:

  • Check that anyone who is visiting isn’t ill. Remind visitors that transplant recipients are especially vulnerable to infection. Ask them to take precautions like wearing a mask or rescheduling their visit if they aren’t well.
  • Keep the house — especially the bathroom and areas where your loved one spends time— as clean as possible.
  • Talk to the transplant team about whether your loved one can be around pets. While pets can lift their spirits, close contact may put them at risk for certain infections.
  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom and before preparing food, drinks, or medications. Ask anyone who visits to wash their hands, too.

Track progress

You’ll provide information to the transplant team about how your loved one is recovering. The team may ask you to check how much and how often the transplant recipient is peeing (urine output). This information helps healthcare providers know whether the new kidney is functioning as it should.

It’s also important to watch for signs of infection or kidney rejection. Tell the transplant team if your loved one:

  • Experiences swelling.
  • Has a fever, chest pain, or redness — especially at the incision.
  • Is in increasing pain after surgery.
  • Produces less urine than usual.

Take Care of You While You Care For Them

Caring for someone who’s had a kidney transplant can be rewarding. But it can affect your own health and well-being if you don’t also care for yourself. It’s important to get help and take some time off if you need it.

Your loved one will need the most help right after surgery. Here are some ways to make this time easier on yourself:

  • Arrange for someone else to come over while you shower, take a break, and get some rest.
  • Ask someone else to make trips to the pharmacy or store for needed supplies. You can also ask someone to fill your car with gas so you’re ready to take your loved one to appointments.
  • Talk to the transplant team ahead of time so you know who to call with urgent questions or concerns.
  • Prepare meals in advance or have food delivered.

The transplant team can answer your questions about caring for someone after kidney transplant surgery. They can also connect you with resources that can support you and your loved one as they recover.

American Kidney Fund, Preparing for Transplant: Evaluation, Finding a Match, Costs and Surgery, Link

American Kidney Fund, Recovery After Transplant Surgery, Link

National Kidney Foundation, Foods to Avoid After Transplantation, Link

UNOS Transplant Living, Caring for Patients, Link

About Transplant Services

For more than four decades, UPMC Transplant Services has been a leader in organ transplantation. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, making UPMC one of the foremost organ transplant centers in the world. We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts and take on some of the most challenging cases. Through research, we have developed new therapies that provide our patients better outcomes — so organ recipients can enjoy better health with fewer restrictions. Above all, we are committed to providing compassionate, complete care that can change – and save – our patients’ lives. Visit our website to find a provider near you.