At 18 years old, he donated a kidney. Now, he regrets it.

This article  was originally published in The Washington Post on October 2. This is not an article I am particularly fond of. A living donor now regrets the decision he made at age 18. As the recipient of a kidney via living donation, and knowing of at least a couple of people who were willing to donate a kidney anonymously (sometimes referred to as an undesignated or altruistic donation), it troubles me that Mr. Poulson now regrets his decision. It also troubles me that living donors may be putting their lives at risk beyond the immediate risk of the surgery itself. Even so, I think this is worth reading the perspective of a young living donor. Please note that this is article is particularly applicable to the US context.

You may or may not want to read the comments following the article, however. Some are disheartening and mean-spirited. Others are encouraging.

By Michael Poulson
When I was 18, my stepfather’s brother had been on dialysis for just over a year. He was thin, he exercised regularly and he seemingly was in perfect health, but inexplicably his kidneys began to fail him. Although I was just about to leave for college, I’d heard enough about the misery of dialysis to decide to get tested as a possible donor. In the back of my mind, I knew that the chances of our compatibility were incredibly low because we were not related by blood. Perhaps that made it easy for me to decide to get tested.

When we received the results, I was stunned to find out that he and I were a match. The transplant team gave me plenty of opportunities to back out of the donation, and it put me through countless evaluations, physical and psychological. Much of my family was steadfast against my becoming a donor. Looking back, who could blame them? Their son-grandson-nephew was going to undergo a major operation with no benefit to himself.

However, I continued to be confident in my choice. I relied on the one fact that would be repeated to me many times: “The rate of kidney failure in kidney donors is the same as the general population.” Why wouldn’t everyone donate a kidney, I wondered.

My mother was the only one to — reluctantly — support my decision. She accompanied me to San Francisco, where the surgery took place, and we settled in for the weeks that I would spend recovering. On the day of the surgery, anesthesia flowed into my arm and the world swiftly slipped away. Then, just as quickly, it seemed, I awoke, nauseated and confused. So much preparation for such a short nap. The anxiety I’d felt about the surgery was now gone — as was one of my kidneys.

An uneventful recovery came and went. I returned to college and resumed a normal life. Likewise, my step-uncle did very well and is living a full and healthy life, as is my donated kidney.

Michael Poulson regrets giving that kidney away. (University Photo)

Michael Poulson regrets giving that kidney away. (University Photo)

Five years after the surgery, when I was 23 and getting ready to go to medical school, I began working in a research lab that was looking at kidney donors who had gone on to develop kidney failure. For that research, I talked to more than 100 such donors. In some cases, the remaining kidneys failed; in others, the organ became injured or developed cancer. The more I learned, the more nervous I became about the logic of my decision at age 18 to donate.

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3 thoughts on “At 18 years old, he donated a kidney. Now, he regrets it.

  1. Gail

    My mother had kidney disease. She went on dialysis in 2000, received a transplant in 2005 which eventually failed as well in 2009. The transplant came from a deceased person. She passed away in 2015. I was not willing to even be tested as I knew I would not donate. I had thyroid cancer in 2000 and I just did not want to risk a donation. As it turned out, I was diagnosed with colon cancer in September of 2015, so I am okay with my decision. I have two sisters. One also decided not to even get tested as she had a young family and felt her loyalties were to them. The other one did get tested but was turned down for psychological reasons.

    I sympathize with Michael. We are all allowed to regret decisions. I think he is brave to talk about it, considering the backlash he has gotten from some of the awful comments. He is allowed to have hisown thoughts and feelings on the subject. For me the biggest takeaway is that an 18 year old should NOT be allowed to donate. I feel it is too young, The frontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid twenties. Decisions have consequences, and I feel that at 16, you do not have the capacity to see that.


  2. Rangi

    He has had such a kind heart to donate his kidney n im sad that he regrets it now. He gave a life to someone else n now he regrets. We have only one heart, one brain. We cant tell when will we die. Even with all these healthy organs we can simply die at any point. (Accidents, heartfails , cancers, earthquakes, tsunamis, wars, by killers, by animals etc). one of my uncle lived more than 90 years with a single kidny (one of his kidneys was removed in his mid age) n I had a cousin who died failing her both kidneys once when she was 16. Life is something like that. We can be dead at any moment. I think Michael Poulson should be proud of what he did. He could become a God to a dieing soul. Every breath that person take is a gift from Michael… whatever he says now. I still admire that 18 year old courageous kid with a kind heart… kids like him is a pride to this world… (sorry if there are mistakes in my writing as im not fluent in english)



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