Brendan Cahill and his wife
Brendan Cahill shares his "transformational experience" after donating one of his kidneys to a stranger to help his wife Joanne. (Photo: UHN)

At first, the idea of donating an organ to a complete stranger seemed "a little bit weird," he admits. But, for Brendan Cahill, what started as a gesture to save his wife Joanne Kearney turned into a unique life-changing experience.

Since the beginning of their relationship a decade ago, Brendan knew one day Joanne would need a transplant. She was diagnosed with reflux nephropathy as a child, a condition that causes scarring of the kidneys and eventually can lead to renal failure.

"Early on, I had my mind set that I would be her living donor when she needed it. We thought it wouldn't be a problem, but we had to adjust our plans."

In November of 2015, Joanne went into end-stage kidney disease – her kidneys were failing. With the go ahead from the doctors, Brendan started to get tested. His initial compatibility got the couple confident the direct donation would work.

However, at the beginning of 2016, Joanne's body was becoming more sensitive and it became clear she would reject her husband's kidney. Brendan was no longer a match.

"I remember at first being scared because we had a game plan and it was going to be a very controlled process," he says.

Brendan shares his story about being a living organ donor. "It's not about being a hero, but about the experience of transforming someone's life," he says. (Video: UHN)

After having one of her kidneys removed when she was only five years old, Joanne says she wasn't afraid of undergoing another surgery. She was concerned about not finding a permanent solution for her condition and having to rely on dialysis.

"My goal was to avoid dialysis because it would have a big impact on our lives and I knew a transplant would give me better long-term outcomes," she says. "At that moment, though, dialysis became a real possibility as we were looking for alternatives."

Kidney Paired Donation Program

Joanne's siblings were tested and found out they too were not compatible. Other family members and friends offered to help. They wanted to be tested to donate a kidney to Joanne.

The hurdle was that these tests are time-consuming and, since her sensitivity was high, it was very likely they wouldn't be a match either.

In May, the couple learned about the Kidney Paired Donation (KPD) Program, operated by Canadian Blood Services, and it seemed to be a great solution for Joanne's case.

The program would allow Brendan to donate a kidney to someone in need and Joanne to receive a compatible organ in return.

Of course they had concerns about how this would work and felt a bit awkward at first to be part of an anonymous exchange of kidneys. But, after studying the program thoroughly and getting answers to all their questions, Brendan and Joanne were impressed and immediately enrolled.

"The Kidney Paired Donation Program was the best way of finding a match for Jo and even getting her the best kidney she could get," says Brendan.

"It allowed us to access this huge library of potential donors across the country, which was something we didn't know existed."

In February, Joanne got her transplant and Brendan donated one of his kidneys the next day. They are both doing very well and back to living life to the fullest.

The gift of becoming a donor

After becoming a donor, Brendan says he is grateful not only for his wife's health, but also for having this unique experience.

"This is not about being a hero. It's about having this incredible transformational impact on someone's life," he says.

"The chance to experience this is a gift not a reward. It's something you are lucky to have as a donor."

"Do your research, because there are lots of myths out there about organ donation," says Joanne. She wants to raise awareness about living donation and the impact it can have on patients' lives. (Video: UHN)

As the recipient, Joanne wants to share her experience with other patients fighting kidney disease. She believes it is important to raise awareness about living donation and all the options available.

"Inform yourself, ask all the questions and do it early," she says. "It is important that you know your options so you can advocate for yourself."

Joanne and Brendan have also become involved with the Live On Campaign, an initiative of Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation to raise funds for UHN's Transplant Program.

As volunteer champions, they are helping to support the establishment of a comprehensive Centre for Living Organ Donation at UHN – a world first.

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