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Alberta Children’s Hospital celebrates 100th pediatric kidney transplant

Joel's dad, who wasn't a match for his son, ended up donating a kidney to another transplant patient.

Nine-year-old Joel Garcia Morales told the doctors at Calgary’s Alberta Children’s Hospital, “thanks for taking care of me.”

Earlier this year, Joel became the 100th patient to receive a kidney transplant performed at the ACH since their pediatric program began in 1995.  Now, the program does between five and eight of the transplant surgeries each year.

Media were invited to meet the patient and his pediatric nephrologist, Dr. Silviu Grisaru on Thursday.

Dr. Grisaru said in Joel’s case, the kidney transplant was a race against time. His kidney function was declining, and they were ready to start dialysis. Joel’s father had offered to be a donor, but there was a problem with the match with his son.

“We were about to start dialysis and one of these anonymous donors came forward and the kidney was appropriate for Joel such that he was able to get the transplant,” said Dr. Grisaru,

“Joel’s dad was able to donate his kidney to someone else that was waiting on the list. So, it couldn’t have been a better story.”

Dr. Grisaru said the kidney transplant recovery has gone well. The kidney started working on the surgical table and started producing urine.

It’s not always the case, he said. Most kids do require a period of dialysis either at home or the hospital.

“This is actually very, very lucky for Joel to have been successful,” said Dr. Grisaru.

It’s a bittersweet number, said ACH program head

Dr. Lorraine Hamiwka, who has led the ACH Pediatric Kidney Transplant Program since 2001, said the 100th transplant is a milestone. It’s the result of having a hardworking team.

“Even though we are hitting the 100 milestone, it’s like one of those bittersweet numbers,” Dr. Hamiwka said.

“It’s like it’s too bad that there’s been that need for that many.”

She said it’s unfortunate when kids have to go through kidney disease. Moving on from dialysis to a kidney transplant is life-changing, she said.

“It takes away the need to be at the hospital or be attached to a machine and it gives the children their life back,” Dr. Hamiwka said.

“They go from being ill to being healthy, happy, and they can do the things that they want to do.”

Dr. Hamiwka also wanted to recognize the donors and their families. Without them, they wouldn’t be able to provide the transplants to sick children, she said.

“It’s often parents who will give a kidney or family friends, but we also have altruistic anonymous donors who just want to change people’s lives for the good and improve patient outcomes,” she said.

She said it’s a gentle reminder for Albertans to make sure they sign their donor cards. They can also contact the Foothills Medical Centre to be a living donor.

Thankfully, there aren’t that many children that need kidney transplants each year. When they do need them, they can often go to the top of the transplant list because of their age.  

If there’s a living or anonymous donor the wait may only be a few months. If they are waiting for a deceased donor, it can take a year or longer.

Transplants are different for kids

The average functional life of a transplanted kidney is about 15 to 20 years, Dr. Hamiwka said. While transplant research has progressed immensely, it’s considered a treatment and not a cure.

“You can imagine the child who’s five who undergoes a kidney transplant, they’re going to be back needing potentially dialysis and a second transplant,” she said.

The surgery is a little more technically challenging and the immune systems are different.

“It is a little trickier to undergo transplantation at a younger age,” Dr. Hamiwka said.

It’s all worth it in the end, said Dr. Grisaru.

“Unfortunately, we see a lot of pain and suffering,” he said.

“It’s those moments when we are able to change a child’s life and get them back basically in normal life that allows us to continue and fight every day to get these moments.”

Joel’s happy he can go back to eating his dad’s famous ham, lettuce and cucumber sandwich. He also said he’s got more energy and he’s more active.

For that, he’s thankful.

“And they can change your life and have more energy, more activity and more healthy,” Joel said.

  • With files from Aryn Toombs