Tag Archives: Russ Sawatsky

Transplant One Year Anniversary

One year ago, on Friday, July 29, 2016, I received a life altering kidney transplant from a living donor. Once again, I write in humble gratitude for the willingness of two friends in British Columbia to put their names forward as donors, with Gerald Neufeld being the one who finally was the one to “go under the knife.” I think as well of the tremendous care I received while in hospital, and of the loving support of my wife Etsuko, and my four children, Rika, Keila, Aisha and Aaron, who were with me during that day. There were also friends from church as well as friends from our neighbourhood who visited with me and my family before, during and/or after the surgery.

A lot has happened in the last year, much of it documented in this blog (“shout out” to Robert Chute — check out some of his books on Amazon — for helping me to get this little publishing venture off the ground). I seem to have become a “normal” person again: working 9 to 5 at the same place I had been before I went on dialysis — and that’s all right. In fact, I feel more “normal” than I have in 33 years when I was first diagnosed with kidney disease: no high blood pressure, no excess swelling or carrying around extra weight because my kidneys were not able to do the job, no tube coming out of my belly (I’ll avoid attaching the graphic photos for now) nor the related hooking up to a dialysis machine every night. I could go on. 

Thank you for your support, and thank you to every person who has registered as an organ donor.

I’ll post something again as the day gets closer and as I get my donation page a little more up-to date, but allow me to wrap this up by mentioning that I will once again be participating in the Kidney Walk in London, a fundraising event for the Kidney Foundation of Canada.

A recent photo of me wearing my Kidney Walk t-shirt from 2016.

A kidney for a guitar

Yesterday, February 27, I posted a message from Gerald Neufeld. As it turns out, the Canadian Mennonite magazine recently published an article about Gerald and me, written by Amy Dueckman.

A kidney for a guitar

‘Small steps of faith’ lead to organ donation

By Amy Dueckman, B.C. Correspondent
Abbotsford, B.C. | Feb 22, 2017 | Volume 21 Issue 5

geraldneufeld

Gerald Neufeld prepares to donate one of his kidneys in the Paired Kidney Exchange Program last year. (Photo courtesy of Gerald Neufeld)

Gerald Neufeld of B.C. and Russ Sawatsky of Ontario have several things in common: they both served as missionaries in Japan, where they met their wives; and they both attended Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg at the same time. But the donation of a kidney for one and the receiving of a kidney for the other gives the two a life-transforming connection like no other.

Neufeld, pastor of Mennonite Japanese Christian Fellowship in Surrey, also serves part-time as music coordinator of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford. One Sunday morning in November 2012, his 12-string guitar was stolen from Emmanuel as he was preparing to lead a worship team. He shared the loss as a prayer concern at a Vancouver pastors’ meeting. In response, the pastor from First United Spanish Mennonite Church said he knew one of his members had a 12-string guitar he wasn’t using. The member offered Neufeld the guitar at no cost, and he gratefully received it. Another request that later came from the pastors group was that someone from the Spanish church needed a kidney transplant.

Meanwhile, Sawatsky had been struggling for years with kidney failure and blogging about his journey (see kidneyforruss.wordpress.com). He went on medical disability leave when he began dialysis in 2014.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

If, like Gerald, you are interested in living organ donation, this link includes general information about both kidney and liver donations.

You can also register as a deceased organ donor by following the links or the contact information on this site for the province or territory where you reside.

A Message from a Living Kidney Donor

A few months ago in the post, A Somewhat Oddly Timed Thanksgiving, I mentioned Gerald Neufeld, who donated a kidney on my behalf as part of the Paired Kidney Donation (a.k.a. Living Donor Paired Exchange) program. I had mentioned in that post that Gerald had been a missionary in Japan. These days Gerald continues to be involved in church ministries in two part-time roles, one as pastor of a small Japanese congregation in Surrey, BC, and the other as the music coordinator for Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford, BC. On February 12, he shared the following message at Emmanuel:

Faith, Christian Community, and Kidney Donation

Galatians 6:1-10

I’d like to tell you a bit about my experience in donating a kidney a number of months ago. Most of this message will be about my experience. Many people think that it must have been a huge decision for me, but I really felt like it was just a number of small steps of faith. God has blessed me with great health, a supportive family, and a wonderful church community. In deciding to take steps to donate a kidney I felt like I was just responding to God for all the blessings I’ve received…

If you read the article I wrote in the Emmanuel newsletter you would have seen how I decided to donate. Rather than it being one huge step of faith, it really felt like a lot of little things, pieces of a puzzle that came together. As I reflect on this, I realize how much community has been woven through the whole process.

In Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia he tells them to “Bear one another’s burdens…” Here, he’s likely talking about helping people who are of bearing the burden that results from sin and the consequences of sin, but the burdens that we can help each other with could be anything that takes away from the joy in living our faith – sickness, difficulty finding work, struggles in relationships, uncertainty about the future… I’m not going to get into a lot more detail here but I thought this passage fits well with the role of the faith community in everyday life. A big part of bearing one another’s burdens involves prayer, and as I look back on my experience it’s interesting how the prayers and support of our faith community played such a major role.

At a Vancouver pastor’s meeting, when I first heard a prayer request for a man who was dying because his kidneys were failing, I began to not only pray for him, but I also thought, “Would it work for me to actually donate a kidney?” I began praying to see if God may be leading me this way. Didn’t John the Baptist say “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none”? I figured I have two healthy kidneys, I guess maybe I could share with someone who has none (at least none that are functioning well)! I remember my wife Rie’s initial reaction. “I hope it doesn’t work out for you to do it!” She was quite worried! But then, she also began to pray about it and soon she was strongly supporting me, I think because she sensed that maybe God was leading me in this direction. I did lots of research, and found out that most people who donate a kidney have no problems afterward and can live a normal life. You don’t need any special medication or anything, and the only restriction I have now is that they advise against skydiving. (I’ve never figured out why)…

I read in the Canadian Mennonite magazine about another pastor who donated a kidney, and had no problems, so I decided to take another step and begin the donation process. I had to go through many tests in order to make sure I was healthy enough to donate. If any tests showed a danger of health problems in the future, I would not have been allowed to continue the process. It was at this point that I heard the one to whom I’d possibly donate a kidney, was from the same family that had given me a guitar several months earlier! When my 12-string guitar had been stolen I had put out a prayer request during one of the pastor’s meetings, hoping someone may know about a good deal on buying another guitar, and one pastor suggested he could check with a church member who has a 12-string guitar that was hardly ever used. Right away, I heard that I could have it. Now, this was the same family praying for a kidney! I had already pretty much decided to start the process to donate, but this helped confirm my decision. If they gave me a guitar, I guess I could give them a kidney! Since I wasn’t compatible with the person who needed the kidney, I joined a special program where other incompatible donors and recipients are matched. So, between 2, 3, or 4 incompatible pairs people could be matched so that each person can indirectly donate or receive. It usually takes several months, but before we were matched, the other person actually received a kidney from a deceased donor. I then wondered if God was saying, OK, you don’t have to donate anymore. But by that time, I had heard about a different friend who needed a kidney, so I decided to stay on the list in order to donate for him. Why not? I was all ready to donate! Russ Sawatsky is a friend I’d met in Japan. We’d both been mission workers there, and had met several times. Now, Russ is living with his family in Ontario… After much waiting, we were finally matched and we each had surgery.

To have surgery, I wasn’t too scared because I felt that God had led me to this decision. Of course there was a potential that there may be some complication, but I felt that even if I ended up with some major problem, God would continue to lead me through. I sensed your prayers as well as the prayers of many others in my wider community of family and friends.

Through this whole process, I didn’t let myself think too much about possible things that could go wrong (‘cause I didn’t want to chicken out!) (even though the chances of anything terrible happening were quite slim). I expected everything to go smoothly, but there were a few unexpected things that happened, reminding me that this was a complex process. I guess one thing is that the whole process took longer than I expected. When I first called the number of the “Pre-Assessment Transplant Clinic,” I gave them my email address, and they then sent me all the information I needed to get started in the process. I was thinking in my head that once I called that number, I was committing myself to donate, and would probably have surgery within a few weeks. It could have happened in a couple of months, but in the end, it was over a year later that everything finally worked out. During the process there were many opportunities for me to decide to opt out if I wanted. The staff were very careful to make sure I didn’t feel obligated to continue if I suddenly felt uncomfortable about the whole thing.

After the surgery, I was a bit surprised that it was somewhat more challenging than I had expected. There was no time when I felt all that much pain. At home, though, I took the maximum recommended dosage of painkillers because I wanted to be able to sleep, but it had the opposite effect. My mind went into a panic and I was not able to sleep for over 30 hours! It was a strange feeling, and at times I thought I might die. I prayed quite a bit during that time, committing to God, but physically my mind could not stop racing. After that I didn’t take any more painkillers and I actually don’t think I needed them. I’m glad that the weird effects only lasted about a day, and I’m thankful for all your prayers during my recovery. It was quite meaningful for me to know that I am a part of a larger faith community. It wasn’t just my own prayers that gave me strength, as I’ve mentioned before. You have been participating as well.

In the scripture passage read today, Paul not only encourages the people to bear one another’s burdens, he also says that everyone must carry their own loads. This might seem to be contradictory, but the meaning is different. We are to support and encourage each other along the way, but everyone must also take responsibility for their own actions. Someday, we’ll each have to give an account of how well we lived with what God has given us. The good news is that we are already children of God, part of God’s Kingdom through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us on the cross.

Today’s passage from Galatians ends with the encouragement to do what is right, not giving up, and whenever we have the opportunity, to “work for the good of all, especially those of the family of faith.” We all have chances to take a step of faith in some area. It doesn’t have to be organ donation. Maybe God is calling you to commit to give a greater percentage of your money to help others. Or maybe you are being called to give of your time, or something else in a different area. It may be a bit scary, but if you take just a small step of faith, you will see what God can do! And the one step may lead to another and another! I actually did a lot of calculating before deciding to donate a kidney, but I’m trying to trust more and more in God’s leading so that I can take more steps in the direction I feel God leading, even if I haven’t calculated and weighed all the possibilities. Sometimes I end up waiting too long before taking a step of faith, but with the support and encouragement of believers around me I’m learning to trust our Lord, more and more. Our steps of faith may be wobbly like a baby learning to walk. We’ll sometimes fall, but like a loving parent, I believe God is pleased to see us keep trying.

The great thing is that we are not alone in taking our steps. We are part of a faith community. How do we bear one another’s burdens? Here in Canada, we value independence. We teach kids to stand on their own, and take their own responsibility. We make sure we are doing the right thing, and it doesn’t matter so much how others are doing. But, when I lived in Japan I saw a different culture where the emphasis was much more on the community. The needs of the group take priority over individual needs. In Japan people are taught to think about the needs of others before their own. I sometimes notice this cultural difference between my wife and me. She’s criticised my driving because I’ve often failed to let others into my lane. My driving style is to mainly make sure I am following the rules, and others can do what they want, but in Japan people are taught to consider others, even when driving. I think we can learn something from them in this area.

It’s so easy to go through life with blinders on (like a horse). Sometimes horses have blinders on each side of their head so they don’t get distracted and can focus straight ahead. Instead, I’m trying to take more notice of what’s happening around me. It’s not good to just focus on my own situation all the time. Is there some area where you’ve noticed a need? Maybe it’s time to step into the situation in order to offer help in bearing another’s burden, so to speak.

All through the process of my experience, I’ve sensed the work of the wider faith community — after losing my guitar, in my request for prayer at the pastor’s meeting, the request for prayer when someone needed a kidney, the prayers and support from you as well as family and friends in other places, as I underwent surgery, the prayers and support as I took time off work. Community played a role as I learned through the Canadian Mennonite magazine about the other pastor who donated a kidney. And, my connection with Russ Sawatsky through mission work and the wider Mennonite community was another area where community played a role. It’s good to hear that Russ is now doing well, and also the person who directly received my kidney here in BC. I also feel pretty much back to normal.

So, what about each of us, in our lives? Where might God be leading us to take a small step of faith? Jesus said we only need faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. The reason is, God recognizes our little attempts to be faithful, and brings us the rest of the way. Each of us are called to really just take a small step. It usually involves some risk. Maybe God is calling you to take a step. Many people have already signed a donor card. It can easily be done online, and even kids can sign up. A link is provided in the bulletin, but you can also just do a search for “BC Transplant.” Someone who has registered a decision to donate any organs needed, after death, could potentially save the lives of eight different people. Or, some of us may feel a calling to sometime become a live donor. Recently, I was amazed to hear that if you donate a part of your liver, it grows back! If I’d known that, maybe I should have done a liver donation rather than kidney! No… I have no regrets. Maybe someday I’ll consider the liver. But, one thing is becoming more and more clear to me. I think I may never have experienced donating a kidney if it hadn’t been for the supportive community and the encouragement I experienced in the small steps along the way.

Let’s pray.

Almighty God, you have blessed us with so much! Thank-you for all you’ve given us. Thank-you that through your Son, Jesus we have perfect peace and joy. Thank-you for the gift of your church. Each day, you lead us, O Lord. Thank-you that no matter what happens around us we need not fear, because you walk with us. Help us to trust that you always provide us with everything we need to do your will. Increase our generosity, that we may rely more and more on you and less and less on ourselves. Grant us the courage to step out in faith. Help us to notice those areas where you call us to step in and help bear another’s burden. May we recognise the opportunities you give us to take those small steps of faith, through the power of Christ at work within us, Amen.

Another couple of steps forward, but another (half?) step back, too

Happy New Year to everyone. I hope the Christmas and New Year holiday season was enjoyable for everyone. Etsuko and I were pleased that all four of our children could be home for Christmas from their various locations.

Today, January 3, 2017, marks a milestone: I went to work! Well, sort of. I got up as early as I usually do, in order to take various medications at the appropriate time, but instead of hanging around at home after that, I got on a bus at 8:25 this morning and made my way to a TD Bank building where I had been working until the summer of 2014, when I had gone onto dialysis and a consequent disability leave. I “worked” a half-day, 9 am – 1 pm. I use the term “work” somewhat loosely as my main task of the day was to simply begin to get into the routine of going from home to work and back home again. Beyond that, getting permissions set up so I could log onto my computer and access email took a bit of time, and then it was a matter of listening to (“shadowing”) calls that my co-workers were taking. As the days go on, presumably a few other things will be added to expand the range of tasks I can engage in. It will be a “gradual” return to work, so two half-days this week, three next week, and so on until I have reached full-time hours the week of February 20.

I’m actually quite excited about the prospects of returning to work because on February 27, I will be part of the first “wave” of employees who will be training for the licensing exam for the Canadian investment industry. For many years, we served US clients and were thus licensed in the US, not Canada, but now we are “coming home” so to speak.

So, today was the step forward. I can also mention that the blood clot has been successfully resolved with only some minor scarring of the affected blood vessel left to show for it. As for the (half) step back, one of the side effects of the immunosuppressant drugs that I had hoped to avoid has in fact come to pass. Some tests that were done by my family physician show that I now have Type 2 diabetes. It’s not severe, and my doctor just told me to restrain myself over the holidays when it comes to simple carbs (minimize the cookies, cakes and candies…). My situation will be followed up at the end of this month, but even so, I gather that the tests do not reveal a very severe level of diabetes. I am also hopeful that as a reduction in some of my drugs is likely to occur over time, the disease might even subside. In the meantime, I feel fine, which is a great feeling indeed.

cantransplant_logo1

I’m not one to make resolutions at the beginning of each year, but I might ask readers of this blog to resolve to sign up as an organ donor, if you have not done so already. The Canadian Transplant Society provides a helpful page with links to the various provincial and territorial registration sites. Please click here to be taken to the site, and take the necessary steps to register.

Thanks,

Russ

London Kidney Walk 2016

This weekend, Sunday, September 25, I will be walking in the London edition of the Kidney Walk, a fundraiser for the Kidney Foundation of Canada. Last year was the first time I participated in the Walk. In fact, I hadn’t been aware of it previously, despite 30+ years of living with kidney disease. This weekend, Friday, September 23, to be precise, will also mark eight weeks since I received my transplant.

And, as long as I am marking significant events, this past Monday, my friend Gerald donated one of his kidneys as part of the Paired Kidney Donation program run by Canadian Blood Services. His donation, although after my own surgery, made it possible for me to receive a new kidney. I had the pleasure of phoning him and his wife yesterday, Tuesday, the day after his surgery, and he sounded just fine! Praise God for his tremendous gift. I wouldn’t be where I am now without his generosity.

I’ve made a lot of progress in the last nearly eight weeks, but I still have a ways to go. I get tired very quickly, and a little bit of exertion brings out the sweat in buckets. On the positive side, walking is not that difficult. I’ve already walked more than half an hour at a time on several occasions, so I don’t anticipate any problems with the Kidney Walk. Again, I’ve made progress. Take a look at my vigorous steps two days after my surgery (video courtesy of my long-suffering wife, Etsuko):

With respect to the Kidney Walk, if you are interested in sponsoring me, there is still time to do so online here: Welcome to Russell Sawatsky’s page.

Thanks so much to all those who have already been so generous either with donations or with words of encouragement. They have meant a great deal to me and my family.

One Week Post-Discharge from the Hospital

On Friday, July 29, I received a transplanted kidney from a living donor. The surgeon who performed the surgery was Dr. Alp Sener, urologist at the University Hospital, London Health Sciences Centre, London, Ontario. My new kidney immediately began producing urine so Dr. Sener removed the catheter that had placed in my belly for peritoneal dialysis two years earlier. Yay! No additional surgery required.

Dr. Alp Sener

Dr. Alp Sener

My surgery did not begin until 2 pm, even though I had to be in the hospital at 5:45 am that morning. The medical staff needed to know that I was not ill so that they could go ahead with the removal of the kidney from the donor. It made for a long wait for me, and for my wife, Etsuko, and four children, Rika, Keila, Aisha and Aaron, and for two people from Valleyview Mennonite Church, Alvin M. and Erma K.

The last thing I remember in the operating room before the surgery was that there was a mask placed over my face and I was told to breathe deeply to take in lots of oxygen. Eventually, they must have introduced an anesthetic, because shortly after… I was awake in the Transplant Unit. The four hours of surgery and two hours in the post-surgery recovery area took no time at all by my reckoning.

Since then, one of my main accompaniments has been pain. Having one’s belly cut into is not a minor event. I didn’t sleep much that first night; I know that because a nurse came in and checked me out every hour. Not surprisingly, given we are dealing with a kidney, is that they wanted to see how much urine I was producing. It looked a lot like cranberry juice during those first days.

I’ve been told that one of the keys to a quick recovery is to get the patient moving. So, the next day, I was helped to sit up and make my way to the chair in my room a mere two steps away. It seemed like an almost impossible accomplishment. Then they brought in a scale and I had to stand up and step onto that device. For a guy who had been walking 8-10 kilometres almost every day for the last few years, these small actions seemed like quite a comedown, and yet they were as strenuous as anything I had faced in a long time. From there I graduated over the next few days to a 20 metre jaunt and eventually multiple laps around the unit.

A transplanted kidney likes to be “wet.” Completely contrary to my time on dialysis, then, instead of moderating my fluid intake, I was told to drink a lot, at least two litres of water per day, and on top of that, they were pumping fluids into me via IV throughout the first few days of my stay. When I woke up one morning, I was puffy from top to bottom, including my eyelids. Not a pleasant feeling. I had also gained 10 kilos of water weight. I’m pleased to say that excess water is almost all gone now, though, which makes for a much more comfortable body.

I’m so grateful for all the visitors, several people from church as well as neighbours. I can’t say enough about the importance of that kind of support. On top of that, we are so fortunate to be living nearby the hospital so that visits from my wife and my two London-based children were a possibility. Transplant patients in London come from all over Ontario, which makes that kind of support more of a challenge for those who come from farther away.

Our public health care system is often criticized, but I have to say that my experience has been better than anything I could have expected. The care of the nurses, the twinkle in the eyes of the doctors when they came in day after day, telling me that my new kidney is functioning so very well, the staff who organized this wonderful thing called Paired Kidney Donation. As I heal, I know that I am going to be freer and healthier than I have been in decades. What other response can there be than gratitude?

University Hospital, London Health Sciences Centre

University Hospital, London Health Sciences Centre

One diagram showing how an undesignated donor can make a difference in many lives.

One diagram showing how an undesignated donor can make a difference in many lives.

A quilt of donors hanging in front of the Transplant Unit, showing both living and deceased donors.

A quilt of donors hanging in front of the Transplant Unit, showing both living and deceased donors.

I don’t know who donated a kidney directly to me, and I am not meant to know. Patient confidentiality is an important value in the transplant system. But I will write a letter of thanks. Someone I do know is a friend in British Columbia who was willing to enter into the Paired Kidney Donation program, which allowed me to receive a kidney from another living donor. As I understand it, his donation will take place next month, in September. Again, how can I express sufficient gratitude for what he is about to do? There was another friend in BC as well, who was willing to donate, but ultimately was not selected. This willingness to undergo surgery and weeks of recovery in order that I might regain health expresses a degree of altruism and generosity that I find hard to comprehend. What else is there to say to these people except:

Thank You!

Russ

Jumping Through More Hoops

Yesterday, Monday, July 25, was round two in my series of appointments in anticipation of my kidney transplant surgery on Friday, July 29.

As University Hospital is, as the name indicates, a teaching hospital, I have been asked to be involved in a research project. We’ve probably all heard about the good bacteria in our gut, routinely promoted in yogurt commercials. This research project will investigate the impact of a transplanted kidney, with its own bacteria, into the transplanted person’s gut.

Good-Vs.-Bad-Bacteria

This research project of course meant more blood work, so I once again had blood taken from me. And once again, the bloodletting started in one hand and finished in the other. After a couple of hours in the air conditioned hospital, my veins were not terribly accessible. One nurse saw me coming in and said that she was happy that she was busy at the time, thinking that she would therefore not be the person to attempt to draw my blood. However, by the time the requisition was processed, she turned out to be the lucky one, and got the first crack at me. To quote another nurse, I’m a “nice enough person,” but I guess drawing blood from me doesn’t often happen very easily.

It's a joke! The women who take my blood are always kind to me!

It’s a joke! The women who take my blood are always kind to me!

I heard that drawing blood will not be that difficult once the surgery is done. Speaking with a nurse in the living donor program, I learned that a “central line” will be established in my neck(!) which will allow blood to be drawn and meds to be injected without repeatedly poking me with a new needle. I have this image of myself as looking like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. As long as they don’t have to bring me back from the dead, I’ll accept a bit of a monstrous look for a little while. In fact, I saw a young woman at the hospital a few weeks ago who was there for a post-transplant clinic appointment. She had been discharged from the transplant unit just the week before and looked not at all monstrous.

One of the most interesting and sensitive things that I learned about living kidney donation has to do with the confidentiality of the donor and the recipient. I have friends in British Columbia, known to me, who are willing to donate to me but who are incompatible blood types. One of them will therefore donate to someone in need locally but they will not know or meet that person. Likewise, I will not know or meet the person who donates to me. In fact, the hospital will take some pains to maintain confidentiality. For example, my family and the donor’s family will be in separate waiting rooms in the hospital. If discussing the surgery with anyone else during the day of the surgery, I will be undergoing the more generic “abdominal” surgery rather than transplant surgery.

So, what can I do to say thanks? I can write a letter. The social worker with whom I spoke suggests that I write a letter to the donor, keeping everything anonymous and without any personally identifying information. Then, with the social worker having my name and the date of the surgery, she can deliver the letter to the donor.

'Okay, Mom. I'm sorry I re-gifted one of the kidneys you gave me.'

‘Okay, Mom. I’m sorry I re-gifted one of the kidneys you gave me.’

This is actually a fascinating area, apparently. Apparently, some families of donors and recipients have chatted casually while getting coffee at the Tim Horton’s in the hospital and have almost inadvertently made connections. At other times, especially in the case of deceased donors, some recipients or their families have combed through the obituaries of area newspapers in efforts to identify their donors.

Finally, I want to mention the intended schedule. I have to be at the hospital at 6 AM on Friday morning. However, I won’t actually have my surgery begin until about 1 PM. I do have to be there early in the morning, though, because the surgeon will not begin operating on the donor until my health has been determined to be adequate for surgery that day. If I show up at 6 AM with a fever, they are not going to proceed. It’s going to be a long day.

'How's that kidney transplant going?... I need him back on the field - pronto!'

‘How’s that kidney transplant going?… I need him back on the field – pronto!’

Three days to go! Thanks for all your support.