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Celebrating 50 years of organ donation and kidney transplant excellence in Manitoba

As the 60’s began to fade, new hope arrived for Manitobans waiting for the gift of a functioning kidney. In November 1969, the team at the Winnipeg General Hospital (now HSC Winnipeg) successfully performed the province’s first renal transplant.

“It was an incredible first step and one that set us on a path leading to significant contributions in kidney disease research and transplantation practices worldwide,” said Dr. Peter Nickerson, medical director, Transplant Manitoba. “That same effort and determination to begin a transplant program still drives us today because the need for kidneys in Manitoba is increasing.”

Balancing the need for life-saving transplants is ensuring that all families have the opportunity to consider organ donation when the time is right. With the introduction of mandatory referral in 2014, the percentage of all potential donors referred to the Gift of Life program has consistently improved – 35.1% in 2014, 52% in 2015, 74.3% in 2016, 83% in 2017 and 94% in 2018. Currently 54% of Manitoba families decline the offer of donation largely because they are unsure of their loved one’s wishes.

“Without organ donors and a decision to give the gift of life, transplant programs wouldn’t be able to offer recipients life-saving organs,” said Health, Seniors and Active Living Minister Cameron Friesen. “We are proud to have simplified the donor registration process by moving it all online, making it easier for Manitobans to sign up and make their choice to help others known.”

Jean Roberts knows what that offer brings. As the daughter of the first kidney recipient, she cherishes the time it gave her father and her whole family. “It is with profound gratitude that we honour the doctors, nurses, and all the staff who performed the province’s very first kidney transplant. This procedure gave our mother another 13 glorious years with the love of her life and those years allowed him to experience the addition of seven wonderful grandchildren.”

The process behind kidney transplants today is much less complicated than it used to be. To prepare for the possibility of renal transplant services, a committee of trustees, administration and medical staff spent a year determining if the hospital had the necessary facilities and staff to support it. A moral and ethics committee was also formed to establish recommendations and procedures to guide the process. In October 1969, the hospital’s Board of Trustees officially approved the life-transforming procedure and the kidney transplant program began the following month.

“Fifty years ago, Manitoba patients were receiving care and transplants from other facilities and it was becoming increasingly difficult to transfer patients to those centres,” said Ronan Segrave, Chief Operating Officer, HSC Winnipeg. “With the opening of the dialysis unit in 1962 at Deer Lodge Hospital, and its arrival at HSC in 1967, the development of a kidney transplant program was the logical next step. We are proud to continue to be Manitoba’s hospital for kidney transplants.”

Kidney transplantation is the treatment of choice for patients with end-stage renal disease because it saves lives and provides a better quality of life compared to dialysis. Over the last 50 years, the Adult and Pediatric Kidney Transplant Programs performed 1,761 kidney transplants. That number includes the 607 living kidney donor transplants performed in Manitoba since 1971.

Earlier this year, thanks to two anonymous gifts to the Health Sciences Centre Foundation totalling $3 million, HSC Winnipeg is developing a new Ambulatory Care Clinic for transplant patients. The total cost of the project is approximately $5.5 million. The balance of the required funding is coming from the Province of Manitoba. The clinic will be housed on the third floor of the Kleysen Institute for Advanced Medicine on the HSC campus.

“The new space will result in more timely and comprehensive care; patients will wait less, and patient satisfaction will likely increase,” said Dr. David Rush, medical director, Adult Renal Transplant Program, a physician with the transplant program for 37 of its 50 years. “For the very first time, our entire multidisciplinary transplant team will be together.”

To celebrate 50 years of donation and kidney transplant in Manitoba, the next 12 months will feature special events for public and staff, and regular social media postings (#50transplantfacts) to share highlights throughout the program’s history.

Glenda Peebles is part of that history. She participated in the launch of the 2015 campaign. She is also a living donor – she donated a kidney in 2014 to her sister.

“Learning about my sister’s kidney disease and the fact she would be on dialysis was devastating,” said Peebles. “There was never a second thought as to what needed to be done – we just did it, and started testing. It is a decision I never regretted.”