Clock is ticking for kidney disease patients

Chilliwack man on dialysis spreading the word about the need for organ donors

Cameron Buchanan

Cameron Buchanan

When Cameron Buchanan found out his kidneys were failing, he was already in stage four of kidney disease.

It came as a shock to him, like it does with many kidney disease patients.

“I didn’t feel any effects at that time,” he said. But blood tests showed that his kidneys were nearing the end of their lifespan.

Soon he began to feel some of the first noticeable symptoms, including fatigue. At that point, his kidneys had about 10 per cent lifespan left. Then one day his wife, Patti, realized he wasn’t making any sense. He was rushed to the hospital and tests showed he was down to six per cent kidney function.

It was time for dialysis, and planning for an eventual kidney transplant surgery began.

Now, after two and a half years of dialysis and learning to cope with the treatment’s side effects, 45-year-old Buchanan is looking for organ donors — for himself and for those he’s met along the way.

Kidneys are the most commonly transplanted organs in B.C., and the success rate is high for those who make it to surgery. Kidneys from living donors provide the best outcomes, but finding the right match is difficult. Of all Buchanan’s siblings, there are no suitable donors. His mom, Mary Jean Buchanan, is hoping someone in the community will step up to help her son.

While Buchanan would love to get the call a kidney has become available for him, he hopes the same for those he’s met in dialysis. One man he knows has been on dialysis for eight years, and still waiting.

Today, there are 364 people in B.C. who are currently waiting for a kidney.

It’s the most populated wait list in the province, making up the bulk of the 465 people who are waiting for some sort of organ transplant. An average wait in this province is 4.8 years, and patients don’t always make it to surgery day.

But the push is on to increase the number of people registered as organ donors, and Buchanan is hoping that telling his story will encourage people to learn more about the benefits of registering as an organ donor, or even volunteering as a live organ donor. Fewer than 20 per cent of British Columbia have registered their wishes to have organs donated after death. The Kidney Foundation of Canada has recently committed itself to actively campaigning over the next five years, with the intention of increasing the rate of registered donors to 50 per cent.

A summit is being held in Vancouver on May 1, where they’ll discuss the merits of “assumed” organ donation, where every resident is considered a donor unless they opt out.

If they’re successful, the Kidney Foundation noted in a recent report, the number of British Columbians who die waiting for a kidney will be halved.

Buchanan supports their efforts, and is holding out hope that a live donor will step forward.

His family has spent the last few years learning the differences between hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. They have learned which toxins can build up in Buchanan’s blood and which are the most dangerous.

Healthy kidneys constantly filter things like potassium, phosphorus, and urea out of our blood streams. When kidneys break down, the body fills with toxic waste. The different types of dialysis work to clean the blood — and Buchanan travels to Abbotsford for dialysis three times a week to stay alive. His doctors are constantly adjusting his goal weight, and he spends a large portion of his time resting up from the treatment.

“If I get a successful transplant, I’ll only have to be on daily anti-rejection pills,” he said, along with regular trips for blood work and imaging. In the best case scenario, the father of three grown boys sees himself finding work — even if it’s a lighter workload than he’s used to.

Kidney disease isn’t Buchanan’s only health concern. He was diagnosed as Type 1 diabetic as a teenager. Over

the past three decades he has experienced progress in how diabetes is treated, with improvements to insulin. Similar improvements have been made for kidney disease, but the organ donation program is struggling.

Buchanan would like to go the May 1 summit, but it’s one of his dialysis days and of course, those can’t be missed.

His life depends on it.

Becoming a donor

The BC Transplant Agency would like to be able to provide kidneys to patients even before dialysis is needed. The costs of a transplant is $15,000 and anti-rejection treatment is $5,500 annually. Dialysis treatment runs $50,000 a year. Beyond the cost, patients can live fuller lives post-surgery.

Their website outlines all the risks and benefits to becoming a live organ donor, as well as a list of criteria.

Donors must come forward voluntarily, and must not be under pressure or be forced to donate. They must be in good physical health and be able to give informed consent for the transplant procedure.

Donors must be 19 years of age, but there is no strict upper limit for donors.

The screening process for live donors is about six months, and donors can change their mind at any point in the process, for any reason.

The screening will include several trips into local hospitals and to Vancouver for medical tests and to undergo psychological testing.

The entire process is confidential.

Donors will spend two to four nights in hospital in Vancouver, and will need four to 12 weeks of additional recovery time. Many of the costs associated with being a donor are covered, and some incidental costs can be reimbursed through the Living Organ Donor Expense Reimbursement Program.

There are risks to both the donor and recipient, as with any surgery.

For more information on the living donor kidney transplant process, phone St. Paul’s Hospital at 1-877-922-9822 or visit