(L-R: Sarah and Becky)
Becky Sutherland and her sister Sarah grew up in the small Vancouver Island community of Sooke. Just two years apart in age, the sisters were always very close.
But that closeness grew to a whole new level starting in June 2019.
Sarah went to the hospital with swollen ankles and complaints of a racing heart, but with no prior knowledge of having any medical condition or kidney issues that month. Sarah's kidneys were failing and, within a few months, she was on dialysis.
Eight months and countless tests and doctor visits later, she was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, which was at the root of her kidney failure.
Sarah also learned she would need a kidney transplant.
Becky started the process of donor testing to see if was a match to donate a kidney to her sister. She also started genetic testing because Sarah had been diagnosed with a genetic disease.
While the sisters were going through their own personal health journey, the outside world was experiencing the spread of COVID-19 across the globe.
"We found out that I did not have the same genetic disease as Sarah two days before everything shut down in March 2020," Becky recalls. "That was tough knowing that we were so close and then having no idea when things would be up and running again."
Transplant surgery during COVID-19
The sisters received "the call" at the end of May 2020 that Becky was a complete donor match for her sister.
With living kidney transplant restarting after an initial shutdown due to COVID-19 precautions, the process happened quickly for the sisters. After two weeks of quarantine, they went in for the surgery at the end of June.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic slowed the process but did not alter the result. Sarah started to feel better from improved kidney function almost immediately after the surgery, though she will live with her genetic condition for the rest of her life.
"It was weird not having any visitors in the hospital and only being able to wave to Sarah once from outside her room, even though we were just down the hall from each other recovering," says Becky.
Becky felt good about the transplant most of the way through, and felt supported by the transplant team every step of the way.
"The recovery for me was about as expected, and I felt totally back to normal after a couple of months," says Becky.
(Becky with her two children Molly & Robbie)
Raising awareness for living kidney donation
2021 also marks a new chapter for Becky as she lends a hand as a volunteer for BC Transplant.
"I am a new volunteer and have not yet had the chance to help out yet," Becky explains, noting COVID-19 is still hindering what can and cannot be done. "Right now, I am hoping to just share my story with people to encourage the idea of living donation. The entire process, for me, was such a positive experience [so] I really want to share that."
Becky says she knows that she and her sister are not alone in their transplant journey or in facing a life-altering medical procedure in the midst of a pandemic.
For Becky, flexibility and kindness were key to making it through what her family faced.
"For anyone facing this experience, I recommend just trying to be flexible and staying open to the experience. All the health care providers involved do such an amazing job."
Written by: Ryan Uytdewilligen, BC Transplant Volunteer