Karleen Kantymir affectionately calls Debbie Stead “Lefty.” But not because of reasons like hand-writing style or political views.
Six months ago Kantymir gave Stead a gift. The ultimate gift. Stead was the recipient of Kantymir’s left kidney.
The two women are neither relatives nor were they particularly close friends when Kantymir made the offer. They were co-workers – both are employed by Canada Post.
Stead suffers from a genetic disorder, polycystic kidney disease. Cysts were growing on her kidneys, which were consequently getting larger. Her left one was beginning to push on her other organs, sometimes making her nauseous.
After one particular visit to a clinic in Kelowna, Stead mentioned to her co-workers that it was about time she started looking for a donor. Kidney transplants, she explains, are more successful before dialysis becomes necessary, and from a living donor.
Immediately Kantymir asked Stead about her blood type. She then called St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver to find out what’s involved.
She explains: “I’d always kind of thought that would be something I could do. You know when you learn about it in school – they say you can function on one – but honestly I had never met or known anybody with kidney disease. So it just happened to be that we worked right beside each other and she had it.”
Responds Stead: “I couldn’t believe it. Especially since we didn’t know each other very well.”
She explains that her brother has the same disease and her two sons are at risk of developing it, so she had no relatives to donate.
After going through a rigorous process which included many physical and psychological tests, Kantymir was approved as a donor. The testing goes into a donor’s history in detail, she says, “quite a bit more extensive than I thought.”
Smiles Stead: “I couldn’t have found a cleaner-living person.”
Kantymir’s kidneys had to be at 90 per cent function or more, and with two she was at 94.
Now with just one, she’s at 60, which is in the average range for two.
Part of the process, of course, was making sure her husband Ken and their three children were on board. One of the concerns of extended family, she says, was that if anything was to ever go wrong with her remaining kidney, would they be able to donate to her.
When all the testing was complete, Stead’s kidneys were still 18 per cent functional, so the transplant was delayed for a year. When the next test showed a combined total of 13 per cent, the surgery was booked.
Although Kantymir shies away from receiving gratitude for her gift, it was not always a simple matter for her. The testing, in particular. Many of the tests involved taking blood samples, a process that regularly led to her passing out. The thought of a needle in her vein makes her faint.
“I had to put in a disclaimer each time – ‘I pass out’,” she smiles, “so they’d wheel in the bed and get the big orderly in there.”
On April 17 of this year, Kantymir checked into St. Paul’s. With the humour that had become characteristic of their now close friendship, Kantymir texted Stead, who wasn’t scheduled to check in until the following day.
“You better show up,” she wrote.
Unlike kidney surgeries of old, most of it was done laparoscopically through four ‘ports,’ or little holes in Kantymir’s abdomen. The kidney itself was taken out through a previous Caesarian incision. Kantymir’s left kidney now sits just under the skin on Stead’s abdomen, close to the bladder.
Both women rave about the excellent treatment at St. Paul’s kidney clinic as well as the support from the B.C. Kidney Foundation, which reimbursed Kantymir for many of her expenses and set up temporary accommodation for Stead in Vancouver.
Recovery for both went well; Kantymir began long walks almost immediately because more active work-outs were restricted. Now she can do everything she did before the surgery.
“I’m not supposed to sky dive and my career as a professional rugby player is over,” she laughs.
As for Stead, life is good.
“I’ve just got so much energy, I feel happier, it just does wonders for you, it gives you a whole new lease on things.”
For Kantymir, she describes her experience as very rewarding.
“The person gets better almost right away. That’s the coolest thing about it – the visual rewards right away.”
One of the benefits for both women is they’ve formed a close bond, something which doesn’t always happen.
“It’s hard to describe,” says Stead. “It’s a different friendship than any other friendship I’ve ever had. This is someone who’s put their life on the line for me.”
Stead is now a part of the Kantymir family, coming to birthdays and, most recently, a high school graduation. The women are in touch almost daily.
“If we don’t see each other, we usually text. Our kidneys want to communicate,” laughs Kantymir. “They don’t like being too far from each other.”
And the surgery has made one thing very clear for Stead.
“There’s no reason for a person to die waiting for a kidney, there really isn’t. Look at Karleen. She was back to work in eight weeks.”