Q & A: What Kidney Disease Might Cause My Character to Need a Transplant?

08 Nov

Q: I need a kidney disorder that over a period of a year or so will require a transplant.  The character is a 55-year-old woman who has only one functioning kidney due to a congenital defect. I’d like her symptoms to be mild at first, then progressively worsen so that she must be on dialysis to survive until a donor can be found. What condition might fit this scenario?  What would the symptoms be? How long would her recovery be after the transplant?

Karen Sandler


A: Virtually any kidney disorder can progress to what we call Chronic Renal Failure (CRF for short). This is where the kidneys are so damaged that they no longer clean the blood, which, along with excreting of water, is their primary function. This can be mild to severe. Many people with CRF rock along for years before function declines to the point that dialysis and/or renal transplant are needed. This is highly variable from person to person and from underlying condition to underlying condition. This means that your character could have CRF for a few months or a decade or so and anywhere in between before either dialysis or transplant entered the picture.


Common underlying causes of CRF are high blood pressure (hypertension or HBP), Diabetes, Glomerulonephritis (comes in many types and as a group are processes that inflame and damage the kidneys), many of the so-called autoimmune diseases (Lupus, Scleraderma, Dermatomyositis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and others), and many other illnesses. A common congenital problem that would work for you would be Polycystic Kidney Disease where the kidneys are gradually damaged as cysts develop and grow within the kidneys. Your character could easily lose one kidney to this and then have the other one fail as the disease progresses. CRF in this entity can begin at almost any age.

The symptoms of CRF vary depending on the underlying cause. In general, CRF causes fatigue, poor appetite, weight loss, and edema of the feet and hands as fluid accumulates in the body. When CRF becomes severe, added symptoms could be shortness of breath, sleepiness, confusion, disorientation, coma, and death. Dialysis is used until a suitable kidney donor is located.

Recovery from the transplant is similar to any other abdominal surgery. Four or five days to a week or so in the hospital, a few weeks of reduced activity and then by about 6 to 10 weeks she would be back to normal. This all assumes that the transplant was successful, that there was no rejection, and that her kidney function returned to normal or nearly so fairly quickly after surgery.


Posted by on November 8, 2010 in Medical Issues, Q&A


2 responses to “Q & A: What Kidney Disease Might Cause My Character to Need a Transplant?

  1. Ruby Johnson

    November 8, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Good post. My husband was a diabetic with complications and subsequently went on dialysis. It is a very traumatic experience for the patient and the family and it is very depressing. The renal diet is very restrictive and the dialysis session is two-three times a week for six hours a session, then they have to spend time getting the AV fistula to stop bleeding. This makes it hard for a person to do anything but go to dialysis and come home to rest and watch TV. It causes extreme tiredness and is hard on an otherwise stressed body. At first, driving is possible, but then the dialysis patient gets weaker and weaker and can’t drive any longer. They may walk into the center, but then as months pass, they end up in wheelchairs. While travel is possible, arrangements have to be made with dialysis centers in the state and city you are visiting. It’s not unusual for dialysis patients to have cardiac arrests while they are being dialysed, but they usually have underlying heart disease. My husband arrested following a session at home. Age does not discriminate. I’ve seen a 15 year old and a 18 year old getting dialysis.


  2. Laura Mitchell

    November 9, 2010 at 4:25 am

    I’d also like to point out that unless infection is present, the patient’s kidney may be left in place. The transplanted kidney is usually placed in the iliac fossa (the pelvis) and the renal vein and artery are attached to the iliac vein and artery. This is why Labor and Delivery nurses can’t do fundal checks (making sure the uterus is firm) in newly delivered patients who have had a kidney transplant. It would be very easy to mistake the transplanted kidney for the top of the uterus.



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