'I couldn't even pick up my son': Illness forces family to use food bank

Richard Blyth thrived working long shifts running a busy kitchen to support his young family until one day in December 2008, he suddenly collapsed at work.

Richard Blyth had to quit his job after he collapsed at work and was diagnosed with kidney disease

Richard Blyth, wife Tracy Zimmerman and son Dylan (10) are grateful to Winnipeg Harvest, and to the kidney donor whose organ donation has given Blyth a new lease on life. (Bridget Forbes)

Richard Blyth thrived working long shifts running a busy kitchen to support his young family until one day in December 2008, he suddenly collapsed at work.

"I was bending down to empty the fryer, and I got a pain behind my knees so severe I almost blacked out," he said.

The 35-year-old's kidneys were failing and it set his family on a path that eventually led them to the door of Winnipeg Harvest.

Food Banks Canada says 14 per cent of Manitoba's food bank clients report receiving disability-related income support; a Winnipeg Harvest survey found many who turn to the service are off work because of a disability or a chronic illness.

For Blyth and his wife, Tracy Zimmerman, and their son, Dylan, then 3, his illness meant the River Heights family faced severe financial hardship as their sole wage earner became unable to work.

"I was so sick I couldn't even pick up my son," said Blyth, who went from 225 pounds to 150 pounds in about a year. 

Kidney disease takes huge financial toll 

When Blyth found out he was ill, Zimmerman was an unpaid caregiver for her mother, who was dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and their young son.

They also faced a steep increase in expenses as they dealt with the costs associated with treatment of Blyth's kidney disease.

One of his prescriptions cost $700 for one month of pills and he needed a special diet and supplements. He had no health insurance, and only some of his medication was covered by Manitoba's Pharmacare Program.

"It was very stressful because the money starts to run out," said Blyth. "I mean, you have a little bit of savings and within no time bills pile up."

Elizabeth Myles, national executive director of the Kidney Foundation of Canada, said her organization knows patients face financial difficulties.

"It's a tragic story," she said. "Sadly, that is a story that is not that rare in terms of people with kidney disease."

Even the cost of transportation and parking associated with getting dialysis three times a week can be a strain. Some patients don't fill their prescriptions or miss appointments because they can't afford to get to them, she said.

The Kidney Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Association of Nephrology Social Workers are doing a survey that looks at the economic consequences of end stage renal disease on patients and their families.

"Part of the purpose of the survey is to be able to advocate for change and for more support for people with kidney disease," said Myles. The results of the study are expected in 2017. 

Turned to Winnipeg Harvest for help

It didn't take long after Blyth's diagnosis for Tracy Zimmerman to realize the family needed help.

"When the cupboards are starting to get bare and it's hard to afford fresh food, I realized that you can't be too proud when you're taking care of your family," she said.

The couple never thought they'd need to use Winnipeg Harvest's services, but they were glad the food bank was there.

"It was a little bit sad and bittersweet," Zimmerman said about her first visit to the food bank. "But also I had a sense of relief afterwards."

Blyth and Zimmerman stopped going to the food bank when Blyth's mother died suddenly and left them some money.

"As soon as that came in we stopped using the food bank, because we didn't want to take away from somebody else who could really use it and need it," Blyth said.

Zimmerman's mother also passed away and Zimmerman got a job as an educational assistant, but the couple still struggles to make ends meet.

"We were on the transplant list for five years, but we couldn't afford a cellphone," said Zimmerman. People waiting for an organ are often advised to carry a cellphone or a pager at all times in case a donation becomes available.

New lease on life

The long-awaited call came at the end of October and Blyth received a kidney transplant.

"It's a new lease on life," Blyth said. "My son has never known a dad who wasn't sick."

Blyth visits a clinic several times a week for checkups to make sure his body doesn't reject his new kidney.

He hopes to get back into the workforce eventually.

"I'd like to get back into kitchens because it's something I enjoy doing, but the possibilities are endless."

This story is part of a series CBC Manitoba is rolling out in the coming days as part of our annual charity drive in support of local food banks. Today, we are celebrating Harvesting Hope, a day full of live performances to raise funds for Winnipeg Harvest. To donate, call 1-800-949-8323 until 8 p.m. or donate online any time until Sunday evening (select Harvesting Hope Radiothon).