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Kidney donation to partner the greatest gift of all

Chemainus woman doesn’t hesitate about transplant to improve couple’s life together

It’s the ultimate love story of an incredible gift to ensure a couple in a long-lasting committed relationship can enjoy a better quality of life together.

When Chemainus Secondary School teacher, author and yoga instructor Brittany Leonard found out she was a match and could directly help partner Ryan MacDowell with a kidney donation, she didn’t hesitate about the prospects of going through transplant surgery that she saw as benefiting both of them.

The transplant happened on Feb. 5 at Vancouver General Hospital and both of them are doing well on the road to recovery and excited about what lies ahead.

“There was no hesitation or worries or second thoughts,” recalled Leonard, 31, who was born in Ontario and moved to Vancouver Island in 2013. “It was an opportunity to keep my best friend alive and improve his quality of life. I would do anything I could for this. We are both pretty chill and positive people and believe that mindset really impacts how things work out so going into it, it was mostly just excitement to finally have the wait over and to move on with life.”

The positive changes in many of MacDowell’s prior symptoms and how he’s feeling like a new person in the short few weeks since the surgery have been incredible for Leonard to witness.

MacDowell, 41, who was born in Duncan, grew up in Chemainus and graduated from Chemainus Secondary School, is beyond grateful to Leonard for her support and caring nature that goes well beyond the norm.

“I’m consistently amazed at Brittany’s strength, resolve and love,” he noted. “We went through hell together and she never wavered. She gave me the strength to go on and apart from only a few people was the support I needed. In short, I couldn’t have done it without her. Going forward we plan on getting back to life, travel a bit, go on adventures.

“Nothing really scares me, my main concern was that I’d die and Britt and my mom would be heart-broken. My understanding of the long term is that I should get some good years, I can get back to work and what I love to do. There are, of course risks, rejection or many other things that can go wrong but I’m not concerned. I’ll deal with that if or when it happens. In the meantime, I will spend as much time as I can enjoying life with the people who supported me through this.”

MacDowell and Leonard met on a blind date in 2014 through a co-worker who connected them by phone.

“We chatted a while and she ‘let’ me take her out,” confided MacDowell. “I decided to pull out all the stops. If it was cheesy, I did it. We went to the beach with champagne, fireworks, flowers.”

After meeting for their first date, the couple has been inseparable ever since.

“That was 10 years ago this fall,” Leonard indicated. “The transplant has been a great way to move into the next decade together.”

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MacDowell previously had a double lung transplant in 2012 due to cystic fibrosis. Further health issues cropped up for him after travelling to England in 2015 for Leonard to teach there.

“While there, I developed a toxicity to one of the anti-rejection drugs I was on,” MacDowell pointed out. “This reaction pretty damn near killed me, resulting in us having to abruptly leave the UK to return home. At that point, I had pretty acute kidney failure. It recovered a bit, but only for a few years.”

“When we met, he was feeling quite healthy,” Leonard explained.

Her father had health issues while she was growing up and Leonard feels that prepared her for living with someone with complex health and appreciating every moment they had together.

“It’s been a very long road these past few years, particularly with the strains we see in the health care system, and the impact it’s had on his quality of living considering he’s had me as a donor lined up for four years,” Leonard added. “This has been disheartening and stressful at times, but luckily he’s very strong.”

MacDowell said the entire process leading up to the transplant was very convoluted, contradictory and poorly communicated.

“We did a pre-transplant work-up to see if we were matched. After that, I was left until my kidney function was very low. I was told frequently it’s best to do transplant before dialysis and then was left to go on dialysis. It was about three years of confusion, stress and often extreme pain. My analogy was I was sinking in quicksand and all the people who could help me were just standing around discussing the rope.

“However, my nephrologist was absolutely wonderful, Dr. Carolyn Stigant, and as always I must commend all of the nursing staff. Nurses are incredible people. They were often the only source of compassion and humanity in the health system.”

Leonard said as soon as MacDowell was given the information on finding a donor, she got tested.

“We found out in 2020 that we were the same blood type and that I would be able to donate to him. It felt like winning the lottery. The process isn’t very clear as you go through it so I found out in June 2023 that there were other tests to do and that we may not actually be a direct match. The alternative is to do a paired exchange where another Canadian person with a willing donor who doesn’t match could be flown out to B.C., and we could do a swap with someone we match up with. Luckily, we got the remaining tests done and were, in fact, a match so I could donate directly to him.”

It’s been great to have the procedure finally done and allow them to move onto a new chapter in their lives, Leonard conceded. Having a new lease on life with MacDowell makes all the trials and tribulations seem trivial in their case to Leonard.

“It’s nice to have a fresh start and also to have him find relief after the past few years of such difficulty and poor quality of life. People think it’s ‘selfless’ of me to do this for him. I don’t agree because I benefit from keeping him being alive and well and happy. I think the true heroes are those who are living donors to strangers.

“I also get that being a live donor isn’t for everyone, but I think everyone should consider registering to be a deceased donor, as you can choose which organs you want to donate and can still choose what’s done with the remainder of your body. You can always remove your name from the registrar if you change your mind later.”

A deceased donor can save up to eight lives, Leonard said, and improve the lives of up to 75 more people.

March just happens to be National Kidney Health Month and next week on March 14 is World Kidney Day.

Leonard noted people can learn more about becoming a donor here.

Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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