"Organ donation saved my life," says Patricia Wiebe, who received a kidney transplant 20 years ago.
When a routine blood test at the age of 21 showed high levels of protein in her urine, Patricia was referred to a nephrologist (kidney specialist). For the next five years, she lived with the knowledge that she would eventually need a kidney transplant due to scarring that was damaging her kidneys.
For a number of years, she had no symptoms of kidney disease. Then, at the age of 26, she started to lose her appetite.
"In that last year before my transplant, I wasn't very hungry and I had to force myself to eat. I was under 100 pounds, didn't have any energy and was taking lots of iron pills," she says, adding that her body was so weak, she was hospitalized when she contracted the flu.
Unlike many people with kidney disease, Patricia was able to avoid going on dialysis, a procedure that performs the duties of the kidneys, including filtering waste from the blood, when they are not working properly. Many people on the wait list for a kidney transplant are on dialysis, as it can take years to get the life-saving transplant they need.
"There are four girls in our family and we're all very close, so when I told them I would eventually need a kidney, they said, 'Okay, just let us know when,'" Patricia says, explaining that her family's willingness to donate a kidney to her through living donation meant that she did not have to go on the transplant wait list. Kidney transplants can occur through living donation because most people can live a healthy life with one kidney, even though we are normally born with two kidneys.
The first test Patricia's family underwent to determine if they were eligible to donate was a blood test – all three of her sisters and her parents were a match. Two of her sisters then received renal angiograms, an imaging test to look at the blood vessels in their kidneys, but with each sister it was determined that the risk of surgery was too high.
"By this time, I was quite sick, so my dad stepped up," she says.
"I was very relieved," she adds, "because he was the third person to get the angiogram, and it was feeling like it was never going to happen."
Her dad's kidneys passed the test, and on February 6, 1997, he donated his left kidney to his youngest daughter.
Patricia with her father and sisters. From left to right: Patricia Wiebe, Sandi Unruh, George Guenther, Rose Keller and Melody Braun.
"When people ask him if it was a hard decision, he says, 'It wasn't a decision. There was never an option of saying no.' Now that I'm a parent, I understand that more because you'd do anything for your kids," she says of her 13-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son.
When Patricia woke up from surgery on the day of her transplant, she discovered that her transplanted kidney was what is called a "lazy kidney."
"It didn't start working for four days. My body wasn't rejecting it, but it wasn't producing urine and there was nothing the doctors could do to make it work," she says. "I knew it could happen, so I wasn't worried, but unfortunately, I forgot to tell my family. They were a little worried because they kept seeing me being taken out for more ultrasounds and tests."
On the fourth day, her "lazy kidney" started functioning normally. Twenty years later, this gift of life still brings tears to her eyes.
"I feel so fortunate," she says, her voice catching with emotion. "Organ donation literally saved my life."
If given the chance, Patricia says she would donate an organ to someone in need.
"My organ donor sticker is on my health card, and my husband knows," she says, emphasizing the importance of talking to your family about your donation decision to donate.
Talk to your family about organ donation. Families who talk about their decision to donate are more likely to honour the wishes of their loved ones should organ and tissue donation be possible after death.
Did You Know?
About 40-50 per cent of
kidney transplants in Saskatchewan are made possible through living donors.