Mark Saunders received a kidney transplant at UHN's Ajmera Transplant Centre in 2017. In an interview, he talks about the challenges of managing kidney disease while being Chief of Toronto Police, and how important it was to learn about living-donor transplant. (Photo: Courtesy Mark Saunders)

"Knowledge is the strongest tool you could ever have," says former Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders, kidney transplant recipient at UHN's Ajmera Transplant Centre.

Mark retired in 2020 after 37 years with the Toronto Police Service, the final five years as the first Black Canadian to lead the force. But he continues to be active and share his story – most recently on the ACB Organ Health YouTube Channel launched by a group of African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) patients, health professionals and creatives to raise awareness, improve access to transplant and reduce barriers to healthcare.

As a Constable for the Toronto Police Service Emergency Task Force in the mid-to-late 1990s, Mark suffered severe abdominal cramps. He was unsure of the cause. His superiors told him to go home and look after it. Mark attended a walk-in clinic where he was given medication that did not improve his condition. As a result, he wound up in the hospital in an Intensive Care Unit for several days.

It was there that he found out that he had only one functioning kidney.

"At birth, one kidney did not grow. It was very close to the spine and tiny," he says.

Mark was in his 30s. He had no idea he had been functioning with one kidney his whole life.

"You can live a healthy life with only one kidney, but I also had renal disease," Mark says.

As his kidney disease progressed, Mark started needing peritoneal dialysis.

"At the time, I was Chief [of the Toronto Police Service], and I was healthy enough to do that," he says. "It was a matter of being hooked up to the machine for eight hours a day every single day.

"That was the one that fit my lifestyle the best. Nobody knew I was going through renal disease for quite some time.

"I was still running the organization. I planned my schedule around ensuring I had that eight-hour window at all times. I could still function on my day-to-day, not have people know what was going on and still be relatively healthy, or as healthy as you can be with the dialysis machine."

Kidney function dropped to 11 per cent

Mark and his wife, Stacey, trained to use the machine. The two had a system. If Mark came home late, she would have it set up, and Mark would plug into the dialysis machine. He also had to take the dialysis machine with him on trips and ensure the hotel had room.

It was a complex process for nearly two years.

"When you're the leader and you're dealing with law enforcement, if the wrong information gets out there, that becomes the story," he says. "Not about skills and ability, but this is a dire straits moment for this individual."

When Mark's kidney function dropped to 11 per cent, he was put on the kidney transplant list.

Mark learned about the living transplant process. When he told his wife, she replied: "That's great. You'll have to go through me first."

Stacey got tested and was a perfect match.

The surgeries took place at Toronto General Hospital on Oct. 2, 2017. Three months later, Stacey had fully recovered and Mark was back at work.

"Knowledge is the strongest tool that you could ever have," Mark says.

"What's great about Ontario is that you can go on that live [donor] list and help loved ones.

"The more knowledge we can give people the better chances for people to make good and solid informed decision."

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