A liver transplant involves taking a donor’s liver and placing it into a recipient’s body. While most liver transplants are done using a deceased person’s liver, living donations — donations from living people — are also possible.
In a living donation, only a portion of a person’s liver is taken for the transplant. The other portion regrows in about 8 weeks.
If you’re considering donating your liver, here’s what you need to know about recovery, how long it might take, and what the risks may be to your overall health.
It takes the liver around 2 months to regrow back to its original size. The surgery itself is a serious physical event as well.
Some people may need longer than 2 months to return to work, exercise, or other activities. For example, if you work a physically demanding job that requires a lot of lifting, you may need 12 weeks to get back to your usual daily activities.
Here’s an overview of what you might expect during recovery:
|stay in the hospital||5 days|
|drive a vehicle||2–4 weeks|
|return to most activities||8 weeks|
|lift heavy objects||8–12 weeks|
Liver donors stay in the hospital for about 5 days after surgery.
Immediately after surgery, you may feel pain and discomfort in and around the surgery site. Your doctor will provide medication for pain relief. You’ll also likely have intravenous (IV) lines to receive medications and fluids, and a catheter in place to drain your urine.
The recovery goal is to slowly get up to eating and drinking again within that first week at the hospital. You may be discharged once you’re on your feet again and no longer using any drains and catheters.
You should be able to shower and dress yourself when you return home. Still, you may need additional help in the first few weeks as you adjust to life outside the hospital.
For example, you may be taking pain medications that make it unsafe for you to drive to places in the first 2 to 4 weeks.
As you gain your strength back after your surgery, you may be able to resume more and more of your usual activities, particularly as you approach the 8-week mark. The key is to proceed slowly and not push yourself.
By 8 weeks, most people can start working, exercising, and doing all their pre-donation activities. If you’re not feeling up to it, let your doctor know. Some people may need more time to recover. Others may have complications that slow recovery.
After the initial recovery stage, your hospital may also set up several follow-up appointments you need to attend. These appointments will assess your health and provide important data to the hospital about donor outcomes. They are generally at the 6-month, 12-month, and 24-month mark.
Recovery from liver donation is an individual process. The donor operation itself takes around 5 to 7 hours to complete. Beyond that, no two timelines necessarily look the same.
You may sail through your surgery and recovery period. Alternatively, you may feel tired and need a bit more time to feel back to your old self.
Here’s some of what you can expect:
- You may feel pain or tenderness in and around your incision site.
- You may need medications for pain in the first few weeks after surgery. Your doctor may also recommend blood-thinning medications for the first 6 weeks after surgery to prevent blood clots.
- You’ll be encouraged to do light exercise, like walking, as soon as you’re able to prevent blood clots.
- You may feel groggy from medications, or you may feel tired in general in the weeks after surgery.
- You may need help caring for young children during your recovery.
- You’ll need to schedule several follow-up appointments to track your recovery.
- You’ll need to avoid any heavy lifting until 12 weeks after surgery.
- You may experience certain complications (30% of donors do), like wound infection or intestinal issues.
- You may feel a range of emotions as you recover.
If at any time you have questions or concerns about your recovery, contact your hospital’s transplant staff or your primary care doctor for help.
As with any surgery, there are certain risks associated with liver donation. They can be divided into immediate risks, short-term risks, and long-term risks.
Immediate risks of liver donation surgery
Immediate risks include anything that happens during or immediately following your surgery, such as:
- severe reaction to anesthesia
- bleeding and blood clots
- injury to the liver or other tissues
Short-term risks of liver donation
Short-term risks include anything that may come up in the year after surgery, such as:
Long-term risks of liver donation
Long-term risks of liver donation are relatively unknown. One possible risk is liver failure that may result in additional surgeries, transplant, or death.
Additionally, you may experience negative thoughts or feelings after donation. These psychological issues — anger, regret, anxiety, depression, and more — may crop up right away or years after your surgery.
Still, UNOS explains that donation is a “lifetime decision.” It requires a person to follow healthy habits and get regular checkups to ensure their health in the long run.
When to call a doctor
You may experience more worrisome signs or symptoms after surgery that need immediate attention. Contact your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- fever or chills
- yellowing of skin or eyes (jaundice)
- abdominal pain
- diarrhea or vomiting
- chest pain or difficulty breathing
Choosing to donate a portion of your liver is a big decision. While the timeline for your recovery will be individual, you can expect to mostly be back to normal after 8 weeks.
Setting up a support network to help you after your surgery can be helpful, particularly if your recovery doesn’t go as fast as you expected.
Consider making an appointment with your doctor or a living donor advocate to learn more about what you might expect during the living donation process, as well as to find more local resources for support.