In 2011, I donated a kidney. At that time, it wasn’t a question of would I be willing to donate a kidney, but instead about could I do it. You see, the kidney was going to help save the life of someone I loved very much, my husband Donovan.
In 2007, Donovan found out that his kidney function was decreasing at a rate that would mean he would either need a transplant or dialysis within the next five years. We were living in Alberta at the time, but once we knew this was an eventuality, we made the decision to move back home to St. John’s, NL. It made sense to be closer to family where help was available if needed. We were very fortunate to find employment opportunities quickly and found ourselves celebrating Christmas in our new home in the east end.
All remained stable for Donovan until 2010 – that’s when it became apparent that a transplant was needed soon. I was determined to be the donor if I was a suitable match, so we talked it over as a family and agreed to move forward. I began to go through a series of tests that would ensure both his and my safety. I have always been in good health and other than an annual check-up, did not have much experience as a patient.
Journey to becoming a donor
I became a regular participant in visits to the Progressive Renal Insufficiency (PRI) Clinic at the Waterford Hospital and built a strong relationship with the team – Sandy Duffett, Lois Tipton and Dr. Shik. Lois coordinated our transplant, helped smooth the way for appointments and tests and was always available to answer questions throughout our journey. For me, even the routine blood work caused some anxiety, as each test was the hurdle that would determine my eligibility to become a donor. Thankfully, all the testing went well and in early 2011 the donation became more of a reality as we travelled to Toronto General Hospital for the final assessment.
And so we were off! Well not quite…although lots of testing had been done here in Newfoundland, there were a few extras (and repeats) that were completed in Toronto. This continued right up until a few days before the big event, when the transplant team, after eyeballing us in the waiting room, decided to weigh us…again. To provide a visual, Donovan is about a foot taller than me and quite a bit heavier, but no one had really taken note of that previously. After a hurried conference by the team, they determined my kidney could still work…whew!
Before we made the final arrangements there were a number of other things that we needed to consider.
We needed to arrange our six week accommodations and transportation; we both had to arrange time off from work; we needed to find a family member to travel with us for at least the first week while we were both recovering from surgery; and finally and most importantly, we needed to ensure that our three dogs were cared for while we were away.
There were also some surgical decisions that needed to be made. There were two surgery options for me, mini-incision or laparoscopy. Which of these procedures would be better for me? Which would be better for us? When in doubt go with the surgeon’s specialty – mini-incision here I come!
The big day
Finally, finally we were ready…
July 18, 2011 was scheduled to be the big day. Although Donovan was getting ready for surgery himself, he was “missing in action” for a short period of time as he came to visit with me prior to my surgery. His mom was also with us, and spent an anxious few hours while we were both in the operating and recovery rooms.
My surgical experience I will never forget. The operating room was cold, but a kind nurse made sure I had a surgical blanket. They included me in the pre-surgery meeting to quickly review my case and the procedure.
“Anything to add Debbie?” I was asked.
“Left kidney, two arteries,” I replied, recalling how my surgeon had commented that most people only have one artery.
A couple of deep breaths and I was out. What seemed like a few minutes later, the surgeon was at the foot of my bed telling me how everything went well with organ transfer and that the kidney was working for my husband.
Journey to a full recovery
I was groggy with a lot of pain on my left side, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle thanks to the self-regulated pain medication!
And with that we began our recovery. We were both inpatients for about a week, but not roommates. We shuffled our way between rooms for visits and were quite fortunate to have textbook recoveries.
We were in semi-private rooms, but I can say we learned a lot about patient privacy, how it’s not easy knowing who can answer your questions and how truly lost and powerless you can feel in a hospital environment.
I had several questions, like…
“Can I leave my room and should I tell someone if I do?”
“Can I get out of bed myself, or should I ask for help?”
“The person in the bed next to me is talking to their doctor, should I be here?”
“I’d really like a shower; can I do that myself while hooked up to an IV? What happens if I get my incision site wet?”
Did I know I could ask someone these questions? Of course! However, everyone was so busy and I didn’t want to be a bother. I also felt that some of my questions were a little silly. This was someone who had some understanding of the health system, how must it be for those patients who do not?
Four and five days later we were walking slowly down the streets of Toronto, while still being seen as outpatients. A few short weeks after that, we flew back to St. John’s.
I began working at Eastern Health that September and feel very fortunate to be part of this organization. I reflect on my own experiences often and know that it affects my work in a positive way.
As a patient, the differentiations between departments and programs doesn’t have much meaning. It’s all about their journey; so waiting for referrals, appointments, tests and procedures can be very confusing and feel disjointed. If I can bring that voice to a meeting or decision, I do it because it’s now part of who I am.
I cannot express how very thankful I am to the many people at Eastern Health and Toronto General Hospital who played a part in my personal health care experience. Each and every one made a difference and helped make it possible for me to be an organ donor.
Become an organ donor
I was very lucky to be a match for my husband, but for those who may not be a match for their loved one, there are other options outside of waiting for a deceased donor. If a family member and recipient is not a match, medical tests can be done to see if they are healthy enough to participate in the Living Donor Paired Exchange (LDPE) Program.
LDPE is a program that may be able to provide another transplant opportunity for incompatible donor/recipient pairs. Incompatible pairs are registered in the LDPE database. A computer program then looks for opportunities to exchange donors so that their incompatible recipients can receive a suitable kidney transplant for the other pair’s donor. LDPE is a Canadian program because a national registry provides a larger pool of donor/recipient pairs, increasing potential opportunities for donation/transplantation for all.
And finally, for anyone out there who is considering becoming an organ donor; I encourage you to do it. As you read this, there are people in Newfoundland and Labrador waiting for a transplant – in fact they are among the 4,000 Canadians who wait for this often live-saving procedure every year. Help save a life, become an organ donor! ■
This article was written by Debbie Molloy, interim vice-president at Eastern Health.