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Back to an active retirement after kidney donation

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Kidney transplant recipient Mark Fairey and donor Steve Wimperly

Looking at Steve Wimperly's life now, you would never guess he's donated a kidney. 

Steve's in his sixties and enjoying an active retirement in Vancouver. On a regular basis, he skis, plays guitar in a couple of rock bands, and along with his wife, Tracey, looks after their young grandson, often going swimming together. In November 2018, he put all of that on hold when he had surgery to donate one of his kidneys.

He wasn't sure how quickly he would recover. At the very least, he was told it would take eight weeks. At two months, he was back to doing all the things he loves to do, and at four months he told us, "I can honestly say that other than the scar, I don't feel any different than before the surgery."

For Steve, three main factors influenced his decision to become a living kidney donor: A personal connection to the recipient, a health system that answered his questions and explained his low risk for complications, and the opportunity to connect with someone who had donated a kidney.

Eight months prior to surgery, he knew very little about what's involved in being a living kidney donor. But then he received an email from his friend, Peter Fairey, who was reaching out to people who might consider being a life-saving donor to his 32-year-old son, Mark. In search of a donor, Mark had already created a personal website with helpful links to resources and had reached out to a group of family and friends. However, his efforts hadn't led to a potential donor who was a suitable match.

Steve explains his initial thoughts on reading Peter's email: "I couldn't imagine how difficult it would be as a parent to not be able to help your child, and that I would like to help if I could."

Mark had had a prior kidney transplant in his early twenties from one of his aunts. That kidney served him through his twenties as he grew in his career and got married. However, he now needed a new kidney or would have to go on dialysis treatment, which would dramatically impact his quality of life.

Steve wasn't sure he was young enough or his kidneys healthy enough to donate one, but he decided to call the phone number included in Peter's email. He connected with the Living Donor Program at St. Paul's Hospital whose staff sent him a questionnaire and an information booklet. "There's a lot to consider – health, psychological, financial," says Steve.

The booklet answered most of his questions and he decided to move forward with a series of medical tests and meetings with a clinic liaison, a social worker and the surgeon, which all pointed to him being an excellent candidate and a match for Mark.

"The doctors and staff at the transplant clinic were amazing," says Steve. "They spent a lot of time with me, and my wife and I were able to ask any question that came to mind."

BC has over 50 years of experience performing kidney transplants. Statistically, the chance of anything very serious going wrong for kidney donors is 0.03 percent or 1 person in 3,333. Living donor patients and kidney patients are given different care teams so staff can focus on their respective patients and there is always the option for the donor to change their mind without their reason being shared with the kidney patient. "It's made very clear that the donor can withdraw at any time, for any reason," says Steve.

The Kidney Foundation of Canada, BC & Yukon Branch, runs a peer program called The Living Donor Mentor Program for anyone who would like to talk to someone who has already been a donor. However, Steve had the opportunity to speak with his friend, Peter, who a few years earlier had donated one of his kidneys to his other son.

"Being able to talk to Peter was very helpful," says Steve. "That helped me make a decision. I also decided to go ahead because donating my kidney would improve Mark's life in immeasurable ways and I was only 'giving up' my active life for maybe eight weeks."

Mark ended up having to go on dialysis treatment for about five months leading up to his transplant. He says his post-surgery recovery has been slower than after his first transplant, and he's had more side effects to his post-surgery medication, but that he's doing much better.

"I'm definitely better than I was before the transplant," says Mark. "Going through dialysis was difficult. It really wasn't pleasant. My energy is improving, and I don't have regular nausea. I'm much better now."

As Steve reflects on going through surgery and donating a kidney, he says, "Certainly based on my experience, the temporary post-op discomfort and restrictions on my activities were far outweighed by the benefits to Mark as the recipient."

Steve's wife, Tracey, is very proud of her husband. As she said in a Facebook post the day after his surgery, "Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear blue hospital gowns - and silly hats. But there is no question they are heroes. My husband, Steve, is one. He possesses a trifecta of super powers: generosity, altruism and kindness. Steve's a humble guy, not one to draw attention to himself. But I'm so proud of this man - always, and especially over the past couple days."

Resources for Staff, Patients & Potential Donors

BC Renal and BC Transplant run a joint "Transplant First" initiative to facilitate and support living kidney donation. Information and resources are available on both the BC Renal and BC Transplant websites, and are shared directly with staff and patients at the 14 Kidney Care Clinics across the province. The goal is to increase the number of patients who receive a kidney transplant before they need to go on dialysis, but the initiative benefits all patients with advanced kidney disease who are considering living kidney donation.

You can also view a recording of the Jan. 2019 education session here: Introduction to Transplantation & Living Kidney Donation.




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