Enforced quiet time under the COVID-19 pandemic is no trouble at all for two Salt Spring women who have spent the past two months recovering from kidney transplant surgery: Karen Tottman as the organ donor and Brenda Bowes as the extremely grateful recipient.
Strangers before Tottman’s decision to help was made, the islanders now refer to themselves as “kidney sisters.” Their successful transplant procedure took place at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on Feb. 10, to Bowes’ continuing astonishment.
“When this possibility came up I thought, “What a beautiful woman to even think about that. How wonderful that she would do that for me,’” Bowes said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it, to tell you the truth. I just can’t get my head around it.”
Bowes, who turned 76 last week, was first diagnosed with progressive kidney disease in 2001 during an annual physical check-up. She had been managing her condition to some degree through diet and exercise, but after her kidney function fell to just 14 per cent a few years ago, she was forced to go on dialysis in order to remove waste and toxins from her body.
The process meant travelling off-island three days per week, and by no means equalled a cure. The average lifespan for a patient of Bowes’ age on dialysis is five years. Her kidney function eventually fell as low as 11 per cent.
With doctors’ advice to pursue a transplant as soon as possible, Bowes went through and exhausted a list of potential friends and family members. She reluctantly turned to the community with her first public appeal for a living donor published in the Driftwood in November 2017. Although a few people contacted her for more information, it didn’t seem to go any further.
Tottman, who is 61 and has three adult children, came across Bowes’ situation in an online ad posted last April. After discussing it with her husband she decided to explore the potential for donating. She contacted Bowes, who put her in touch with St. Paul’s Hospital. That’s where contact between the two women would end for many months.
Bowes only learned the transplant was a possibility a few months before it took place. She and her husband ran into Tottman’s husband, who informed them his wife was “still” pursuing the donation.
Little did Bowes know at the time, but Tottman had been undergoing a vigorous process of medical testing and emotional/psychological monitoring all through the summer and fall of 2019 to make sure both that she was a good donor candidate and that she continued to want to be one at every step of the way.
“Throughout the entire process they always gave me the opportunity to ask questions and to change my mind. I thought that was very sensitive,” Tottman said.
Progressive tests showed Tottman was in excellent physical health and that she had good kidney function. Activity slowed down over December but then in January 2020 she finally received the sign-off from the transplant team.
“It gave me a lot of time to make sure I was comfortable with what was happening. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t rushed. I had a lot of time over eight months to discuss it with my family and to check in with the social worker,” Tottman said, adding, “They were so thorough checking out my health that really gave me the comfort level. I knew I would physically be in the best condition I could be in or I wouldn’t have gone through with it.”
The lengthy screening process also gave her confidence in her choice.
“I realized how committed I was and how disappointed I would be if this didn’t work out,” Tottman said.
Once the match was secured, Tottman asked for the earliest surgery date possible. To everyone’s surprise, an early February date was offered, giving the families just a few weeks to make arrangements.
“Usually it’s six months to a year, but this was three weeks. It was like a whirlwind,” Bowes said.
“Thank goodness it happened when it did because now all those surgeries are on hold,” Tottman observed. “Brenda got in just under the wire.”
Both women reported feeling calm and unworried going into the surgery. They were up and walking around the hospital together within 24 hours. While Tottman’s surgery was less invasive, it did mean six to eight weeks of recovery time and she will be rebuilding kidney function with her single organ over the next year. Fatigue is the main impact she is feeling now.
Bowes had a more intense operation and has a longer journey to go but has received good reports on her recovery as well.
“It’s a long process — it’s probably nine months to a year until you’re really back to where you were, but I’m as happy as a clam,” Bowes said. “It’s a new lease on life, that’s for sure.”
There are good supports to help people complete the donation process. The Living Organ Donation Expense Reimbursement Program, administered by the Kidney Foundation of Canada, can reimburse expenses including travel, accommodations, parking, meals and potential loss of income. Tottman noted that as a donor, she would also be at the top of the list for a new kidney if she were to ever lose function herself.
The donor also can be happy knowing their gift has either saved a life or dramatically improved the quality of life for someone else. For Tottman, it’s especially meaningful that it happens to be another person in the same community.
Bowes said although she was initially reluctant to ask the community for help, she would certainly recommend others make their needs known.
“For anyone else thinking about doing it, it’s not as scary as it seems. But you need an angel,” Bowes said. “Karen will be my heart for the rest of my life, as well as my kidney. I just think she’s marvellous.”