New Kidney, New Life: Tapping Into The Life-changing Power Of Organ Donations
Research and Innovations During her ninth year of dialysis, Mary Jo Vradis had lost hope of ever becoming a recipient of a donor kidney, making her dreams of living a full healthy life seem unattainable.
“I was in despair,” she recalls. “I was in a very dark place. But as she wondered how she’d get through another day being hooked up onto a dialysis machine to do the work her failing kidneys could not, the phone call she’d been waiting nearly a decade for finally came. It could be the day she’d get a transplant. The end to the wild roller-coaster ride that tested her at every turn was in sight.
She had struggled with her health ever since she was 19 years when doctors told her that her she had polycystic kidney disease. At age 24, she would start dialysis, joining the ranks of five other family members also undergoing the treatment.
“There are so many misunderstandings around this illness,” says Vradis. “People thought that, because I was on dialysis, I was fine. It’s not a cure. It’s not the answer. It merely buys you time. You don’t get better – just sicker. It’s a depressing way of life.”
Her treatments took more than five hours three times a week. They were draining and uncomfortable. Each time it was anyone’s guess if she’d be able to function afterwards. “I tried not to think about it,” the real estate agent says about her coping strategy. “While hooked up, I would keep busy – work, email, or watch a movie. I wouldn’t allow feeling sorry for myself.”
The life-changing call
One Sunday afternoon, the phone rang. It was from a phone number she didn’t recognize so she didn’t answer it. The caller was persistent and called again. It was St. Michael’s Hospital: “How fast can you get here? We have a kidney for you.” Less than 12 hours later, she was in the hospital, ready for her transplant. In another 12 hours, she would have a healthy kidney.
The enormity of what happened and what it meant hit her slowly as she began to recover in the hospital. She realized for the first time in many years, she was free – free to live her life without her need to be hooked up to a machine being the focus. “In the hospital, I realized I didn’t have to go back home to a machine. I was done.”
Getting a kidney transplant was life changing. Eventually, she felt well enough to work full time, tripling her business within two years. She could now travel without having to pre-arrange and pay for expensive dialysis in foreign countries. She could eat foods once forbidden on restrictive renal diet –bananas, French fries and a glass of wine. She could now serve as an advocate and educator through public speaking about organ donation. She could be all she could be.
The true cost to Canadians
The need for kidney donors in Canada is approaching epidemic levels. It has more than tripled in the last 20 years. And, of all the people who are on an organ transplant list, nearly 80 percent are waiting for kidneys.
The cost of doing nothing is devastating, not just physically and psychologically for those languishing on a donor list, but to society and the country’s financial health. According to The Kidney Foundation of Canada, hemodialysis costs the health care system an average of $83,000 a year per patient. A transplant, after the initial first-year cost of $120,000, drops to $22,500 annually, including medication.
"I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t received a kidney ... I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve seen so many people die while waiting. There’s so much more we could be doing."
Besides allowing someone like Vradis to enjoy a better quality of life, a transplant saves over $100,000 in health care costs over five years for every individual. The economy benefits from the 50 percent of transplant patients who return to full-time work within two years. If 1,000 people awaiting kidneys got them, the additional contribution to the nation’s GDP would amount to $50 million. Simply put, transplants are the best treatment option on every front.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t received a kidney,” says Vradis. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve seen so many people die while waiting. There’s so much more we could be doing.”