The Kidney Foundation of Canada

Kidney Stories

Kathleen Murphy

For most people, turning age 50 is a milestone. In the year or two leading up to this, I had thought about what I could do to celebrate this birthday that was different from what others had done. About a year before, my hairdresser and I were talking about any number of things, one of which was that she had recently been tested to see if she could donate a kidney to her husband who was on dialysis. I asked her what was involved and if anyone could donate a kidney. She could not see why not.

I thought about it for several weeks and then spoke to my husband about the idea. To be honest, he was not thrilled, wondering just why I would want to do such a thing. I explained my rationale. I have had a wonderful life and I felt a need to give back. If donating a kidney would not cause me any long term harm, then it seemed to me a great thing to do. I could make it my 50th birthday gift. I promised that if the assessment identified any risks other than minor risks, I would do nothing to jeopardize my well-being or our life together.

Kathleen with her hairdresser Susan Spence

I then discussed the idea with my family doctor during my annual physical. She too was quite puzzled with my ambition and, although not objecting, this was new to her experience and she could not provide me with specific next steps. I did some more research on my own and then my husband and I met with the nurse coordinator for the transplant program in London to discuss a non-directed kidney donation.

Her first reaction was, by now, familiar to me: she asked me to explain my reasons and wondered if there could be another way for me to give back short of this type of donation. I was bent on exploring this further so I asked her to describe the procedure as if I was related to the potential recipient. She outlined the series of rigorous tests and the psychosocial assessments. She also noted that they are not able to complete non-directed kidney donation surgeries in London because the hospital is too small to provide the separate facilities required to ensure the confidentiality for both donor and recipient. She suggested that I might contact St. Michael’s Hospital or Toronto General Hospital. I went to St. Michael’s and that formally started the process.

It took about a full year from the time I first met the nurse coordinator until I was able to make the actual donation. They were able to coordinate matters such that many of the preliminary tests were completed in London, so only the more extensive and comprehensive tests required visits to Toronto. 

Great concern and detail was exercised in the entire assessment process.  I sometimes thought they were trying to talk me out of donating but came to understand through all of the testing and assessments that they were simply being very thorough in ensuring that my best interests were looked after, both physically and emotionally.

Early in the process, they told me that donating a kidney to a stranger needed to remain top secret. If not, I would be approached by all manner of friends with requests to donate to their particular loved one. So, for approximately 12 months of the assessment journey, I kept it to myself and my husband and the clinical team.  

One of my contacts was with The Kidney Foundation of Canada Peer Support Program.  As luck would have it, there was a person who had donated a kidney anonymously just the previous year and was willing to coach and mentor me through the process. He was so helpful: he gave me the information on his timelines and schedules, answered my questions on the invasiveness of the various tests and shared with me his experience with letting his family and friends know about his decision to donate. We spoke about a half dozen times on the phone and then, about a month before my donation, face to face. He continues to be a support and this year, almost to the day of my anniversary of the donation, called just to see how I am doing.  

After ten months of assessments, I was given the green light. I was able to pick a time to donate that I could accommodate in my job and my husband’s work schedule. In addition to my peer support volunteer, I received additional coaching on how to let friends and family know. At the appropriate time, I had scheduled “elective surgery” with my supervisor at work so she could arrange coverage for my clients. About two weeks before the operation, I emailed those close to me along with a strong request that they not broadcast the news. No one expressed concern about my decision and so many people offered their support.  

I was off work for approximately 6 weeks. I have relatively low pain tolerance but, for me, there was little pain and relatively moderate discomfort after the first 24 hours. I did have a longer than expected recovery from fatigue which I believe was the result of the general anaesthetic. I was able to qualify for sick leave from work. All my travel costs, to go to Toronto for tests and for the surgery, were reimbursed through the Trillium Gift of Life Network’s Program for Reimbursement of Expenses of Living Donors (PRELOD).

Immediately following the surgery and after making sure I was OK, my husband asked the surgeon how the recipient was doing. The doctor would only say that he completed his extraction procedure and delivered a good healthy kidney to the implant team. To this day, I do not know who received my kidney. I live the dream that their life is better because of something that was relatively small for me to do.  

Recently I have agreed to become a peer support volunteer to mentor others who may be considering non-directed donation. I also hope in the future to assist all communities that can do living donor transplants, to open the doors to persons wanting to do a non-directed donation.