Brought together by an act of love and sacrifice, two Ottawa families forge a lifelong friendshipWhen the world is turned topsy-turvy, one who may be feeling disillusioned and unsure about the good intentions of others need to hear the Gill family’s heartwarming story.
In October 2017, Rachel Gill learned that her husband had end-stage renal disease and would need a kidney transplant. Thirty-nine-year-old Terrence, a father of two and an officer with the Ottawa Police Service, had Crohn’s disease and kidney issues, which he had been managing. But at that point, a kidney transplant was necessary to live.
The average wait time for a kidney transplant in Canada is four to five years. For someone as active as Terrence, this would have changed his life significantly, says Rachel, who had given birth to the couple’s daughter just seven weeks prior to the diagnosis. “Sadly, many patients die waiting on the donor list. The thought of losing my husband (was) terrifying.”
The Ottawa photographer and mother of Ty, 9, and Klara, 3, wanted to make a public plea for potential donors on Facebook, but the idea was shut down by Terrence, who was “adamant that this was not something he was comfortable with,” says Rachel. “He did not want people knowing he was sick and he was not comfortable asking people to consider to be a donor.
“But after some long discussions, we understood that he does not have a choice. If he doesn’t find a donor, he will continue to get sicker. Eventually he’d get too sick to work and eventually his kidneys would fail altogether…. His family loves and needs him.”
In the end, it was the effect on his family that made Terrence agree to a Facebook post. There was a campaign through the Ottawa Police Service for his coworkers to be tested and a public blood drive. “He was very humbled (and surprised) that so many people came out in hopes that they might be a match,” says Rachel. Out of the dozens of people who inquired about testing, most of these people barely knew Terrence at all.
One of these people was Barrhaven wife and mother of two, Maria Perez – “a virtual stranger,” says Rachel, that she met through a freecycle group, and who later hired Rachel to do a photo session for her children, Elena, now 8, and Alex, now 6 – who reached out after seeing the post in January 2018.
“I knew that Terrence and I were roughly the same age, had the same blood type, and that both of us had two children,” recalls Maria, now 40. “I felt very strongly that perhaps, if we were a match, then maybe the kidney was meant to be for Terrence all along… I personally felt that if we were a match, then I would be honoured and humbled to donate my kidney to Terrence.”
Donating a kidney is a serious undertaking, but a very rewarding experience, says Maria. It was a long process – “there are many appointments, meetings, consults, and in-depth evaluations.”
The kidney was a perfect match. The transplant happened on Valentine’s Day, 2019 at The Ottawa Hospital, which has a well-established living kidney donation program.
“The nurses, staff, and surgeons at the Living Kidney Donor Program in Ottawa are amazing,” says Maria. “Working with them was such a wonderful experience, from the first phone call and consults, through the extensive testing, surgery, and follow-ups.” The surgery was a success. “The surgeon even said it was as though (Maria) had been growing it for him her whole life in wait for this day,” says Rachel.
Still, there were speed bumps along the way. Terrence experienced some complications in the year following the transplant – he spent several nights in hospital on two occasions due to infections. It’s been 18 months since the transplant, and Terrence is not yet back to his old self, says Rachel.
Managing Terrence’s medications, for example, is a full-time job. “He takes 21 pills per day along with an oral suspension and each must be taken at a different time,” Rachel says. “We have accepted that this is going to be a part of our daily routine for the rest of his life.” And then there are the side effects of the antirejection medications. “Many days (especially the immediate months following the transplant), he feels worse than he did before the transplant,” she says. “This can be frustrating and discouraging, but as the months pass, the good days start to balance out the bad and we know it will even out eventually.”
Normally, a donated kidney from a live donor will extend the recipient’s life expectancy by about 15 years, but because Terrence also has Crohn’s disease, he will need a new kidney every 10 to 12 years. “This means he will need to find roughly four to five donors over the course of his life,” says Rachel.
This past June 3, Terrence, now 42, returned to work part-time, from home on research projects for OPS, with the goal of eventually working full time.
“It is unknown if he will ever be able to return to the road as a police officer,” says Rachel, 39. “This is his hope, but we have learned just to take the day in front of us and not think too far ahead to the next. For now, we are grateful that he is here and slowly gaining his strength and energy back.”
The two families have become close since the transplant.
“Maria has become a very important part of our lives,” says Rachel. “We speak by text/messenger almost every day and prior to COVID-19, our families would get together fairly regularly for play dates, dinners and other adventures. Maria’s family lives 15 minutes from us so getting together and staying in touch has been very easy.”
“We consider the Gill family part of our own family now,” says Maria, adding, “to be able to truly give of yourself to another person is an incredible experience, one that I am honoured and humbled to have been part of.”
The Gills share their story as often as they can and encourage people to sign up to be organ donors. “Living donation is such an incredible gift, but it can be a really scary idea if you don’t understand what it entails,” says Rachel.
Their story carries an important message for these unusual times we now live in. “If you follow mainstream media, it is easy to believe that the world is falling apart,” says Rachel. “There is so much suffering and ugliness and pain. With the invention of social media, information is spread at a rate impossible to keep up with and it can be overwhelming. But if you tune out the ugliness and focus on what is right in front of you, the world can actually be a really beautiful place full of wonderful people.”
Did you know?
Your current or past medical history does not prevent you from registering to be a donor. Each potential donor is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Organ donation by the numbers
3 Every three days, someone will die because they did not get their transplant in time
8 Number of lives one donor can save through organ donation
75 Number of lives that can be enhanced through tissue donation
90 The age of the oldest organ donor on record
100 The age of the oldest tissue donor on record
1,500 Number of people waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant in Ontario
1954 The year the first successful living donor transplant was done
– Living donation occurs when a living person donates an organ or part of an organ for transplant to another person in need.
– It is one of the most important sources of organs for transplantation.
– It accounted for 255 transplants in Ontario in 2012 and represents a significant portion of the increase in organ donation over the past 10 years.
– Living donors are most often family members or close friends of the recipient, but other types of living donation include anonymous donation, list exchange and paired exchange.
Source: Trillium Gift of Life Network
“We will always be grateful to those who took time out of their busy lives to be tested and to give us hope during a time that was extremely stressful for our family. In addition to those who offered to be tested as a possible donor we were also flooded with support from our friends, community and Ottawa Police Service with offers of meals, childcare, driving to and from the hospital etc. We are so grateful to our friends and Terrence’s coworkers along with the Wellness division of the Ottawa Police for the support they gave during this time.”
– The Gill family