For many people, anniversaries are an important way to mark time and significant moments in personal history.
Recently at Royal Colwood Golf Club, the Kidney Foundation of Canada’s Victoria chapter celebrated its 40th anniversary – in conjunction with the main organization’s 50th.
Michelle Harvey of Saanich also celebrated her 50th birthday last week. In her 35th year of living with a donated kidney – her donor was a teen who ultimately died after a head-on auto crash – she holds the distinction of being the second-longest surviving kidney transplant recipient in B.C.
That longevity might not have happened at all, however. After last week’s gathering, she told of how she “died on the table, but came back” during her surgery on Dec. 4, 1979.
“The doctor had already gone out to tell my mom I was gone,” Harvey said. “Apparently when my heart started again, the nurse jumped up and ran out to tell them I was alive.”
The transplant made a major difference to her health, she said. At 10 years post-transplant, doctors told her they didn’t know how much longer the donated organ would last.
So far, so good.
She does her best to eat well and listen to her body. “I rest when I have to,” she said.
Harvey’s husband, Russ, is also a kidney transplant recipient, having received an organ from his brother in 1996. Russ can’t say enough about the behind-the-scenes work of the foundation at all levels.
“It’s essential,” he said. “Without the research of the Kidney Foundation, neither of us would be here today.”
Langford resident Maureen Hobbs, past-president of the Victoria group and a director for the Foundation’s B.C. branch, said the message for the day was to thank people who have been so forthcoming in telling their stories. “But we’re also trying to shed light on kidney disease and let people know they can help.”
Hobbs has a story of her own to tell.
Her late husband, Doug, was a stalwart volunteer for the organization and a kidney recipient in 2000 from his brother. He began the Kidneys on the Move event a short time later to raise funds for kidney patients who have to travel to Vancouver for testing and other procedures.
Debbie Palmer of Langford donated one of her kidneys to her Montreal-based half-sister more than four years ago.
A self-described stoic person, but also blessed with a sense of humour, Palmer, now 53, wrote her story for the foundation about growing up with a sister with polycystic kidney disease and knowing early on that she would one day give her a kidney.
“I learned a lot about the process through the years,” she said, noting that when something would come on TV about kidney disease or transplants, she would sit up and listen or do some research.
During the surgical process, Palmer jokingly named her donated kidney ‘Stella,’ so she could call down the hall, a lá Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, to the organ living inside her sister.
“My other kidney is named ‘Sam,’” she said with a grin.
While giving up a kidney hasn’t really changed her life much healthwise, she said – her sister is doing much better – Palmer sees her donation as somewhat “selfish.”
“I did it because I want her around. How I look at it, the day my niece walks down the aisle at her wedding and her mom is there, that makes it all worthwhile. Your reward is just seeing them live.”
Among the developments in kidney patient management Palmer and Hobbs brought up was the fact living donors no longer have to be a perfect match.
That point can be made in two ways, Palmer said. Not only are the drugs to combat rejection more effective, the existence of the “paired exchange” system has helped save even more lives. Living donors don’t always match their intended recipient and the exchange system allows them to donate to a kidney patient whose intended donor also doesn’t match.
That matching process can mean multiple patients are helped rather than all of them waiting for the right donor to come along.
The system has worked well, Hobbs said, and opens up the potential for anyone to donate a kidney, regardless if they have a family member or friend in need.
“One altruistic donor can save as many as seven lives,” she said, quoting a real-life statistic.
Those who aren’t gearing up to give a kidney to a family member but wish to donate at the point of death must sign up for the B.C. Transplant Society’s organ donor registry.
It can be done easily online at transplant.bc.ca, just have your B.C. Care Card handy. Hobbs said it’s critical to tell family of your wishes while you’re still of sound mind.