Manitoba breaks provincial kidney transplant record, but 200 still on wait list

More Manitobans received life-saving kidney transplants last year than ever before, one of which went from Agnes Bartel to her husband Garth when both of his kidneys failed.

77 Manitobans received second-hand kidneys last year, 1 of which went from Grunthal, Man., woman to husband

Manitoba broke it's own record for the kidney transplants last year. (Peter Power/St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton)

More Manitobans received life-saving kidney transplants last year than ever before, one of which went from Agnes Bartel to her husband Garth when both of his kidneys failed.

"A new lease on life," said Garth, 61, who spent the past year since his transplant camping and seizing the day with Agnes, 71.

Grunthal, Man., resident Agnes Bartel, 71, gave her husband Garth Bartel, 61, one of her kidneys last year. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Seventy-seven kidneys were transplanted in Manitoba in 2017, which Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen says is a record for the province and higher than any other province on a per capita basis for that year.

Of those, 33 came from living donors — another record, Goertzen says — while the rest came from deceased donors who had signed up or agreed to donate before their death.

According to the province transplants in 2016 and 2017 saved taxpayers $1 million in dialysis costs — savings the province says could increase to $4 million by 2019 if Manitoba can sustain the current kidney transplant rate.

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said Manitoba had some of the highest kidney transplant numbers of any province in 2017. (Travis Golby/CBC)

He said Transplant Manitoba's latest numbers show that it is a model organization leading the way in transplant donation participation. Based on numbers from 2016, Manitoba transplanted about 57 kidneys per one million people, which places the province in fourth place globally behind the Netherlands (58), The United States (63) and Spain (64).

"The kidney program is doing so well, not only the best in the country but the best in the world on a per capita basis shows that Manitobans are willing to give as living donors and otherwise but there has to be awareness," he said.

Still 'need to do better'

"We know that we need to do better when it comes to overall organ donations in Manitoba."

A joint task force is set to get under way and review the provincial transplant system to see how Manitoba can boost the amount of donors. It's being chaired by Reg Helwer, MLA for Brandon West, and includes representation from all provincial political parties, Goertzen said.

Reg Helwer is the MLA for Brandon West and chair of the joint task force reviewing how to boost the amount of donors in Manitoba's transplant system. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"The magic, it comes when you see people like Garth that are able to live a more fulfilling life," said Helwer, whose daughter has received two kidney transplants, including one from her mother and brother.

"[There's an] immediate rosiness of the cheeks when you see them in recovery where they had a paper white demeanour before."

Still 200 on wait list

Despite the rise in kidney donations, there are still 200 people on the wait list in Manitoba. Another 30 Manitobans are waiting for heart, lung and liver transplants, said Roberta Koscielny with Transplant Manitoba.

It's a miracle that such a surgery is even possible.- Agnes Bartel

Goertzen said wait times are a product of a complex set of medical factors unique to each individual in need of a transplant, including finding a willing donor who is also a match.

Past and current campaigns focus on education and awareness-raising as the top priority for beefing up donation numbers. But Independent MLA Steven Fletcher has previously expressed support for another strategy.

Presumed consent

Fletcher tabled a since-defeated private-member's bill last spring in the legislature last year that would've shifted Manitoba into an a presumed consent or "opt-out" transplant system.

Rather than sign up as a donor or otherwise declare your wishes with family, the opt-out system would mean the majority of Manitobans would automatically become eligible donors upon their deaths.

Then Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall expressed support for the same policy change last year. That province has some of the lowest donor numbers in the country.

Goertzen confirmed there will be members of the task force bringing forth the presumed consent perspective as a possibility.

In the meantime, one of the focuses of an education campaign is to help address the apprehensions of potential living donors who might have fears or reservations about going under the knife, Goertzen said.

'It was scary'

The Bartels have been married 23 years, and Agnes says she was afraid early on when they learned Garth would be down to one partially-functioning kidney.

"That was not news we were expecting to hear and it was hard to think about what was to come," said Agnes. "It was scary."

Garth lost a kidney to cancer in 2001. After registering really high blood pressure during a visit, doctors realized one of Garth's kidneys had a tumor and needed to be removed. Surgeons then realized his other kidney was only working at about 50 per cent of normal function.

I would say go for it, please. It's well worth it.- Agnes Bartel

Garth spent the next several years carefully minding his health, but in April 2014 he became ill and his kidney function deteriorated. By June of that year Garth was relying on a dialysis machine. He was able to do it at home, but  the dialysis cut into the couple's cherished time camping, Agnes says, because they could never stray far from electricity.

"It was not an ideal way to life," said Agnes.

"It was disappointing definitely but I knew we were going to get through it," added Garth.

Garth would spend three hours a week cleaning his equipment, and nine hours every night hooked up to the dialysis machine. He was no longer getting a restful night sleep, and that, paired with other time-consuming challenges, drove Agnes to get tested to see if she was a match. She was, and a little over a year ago she gave Garth one of her kidneys.

'Great experience'

Their quality of life has more or less been restored to the way things were before Garth's kidney health deteriorated in 2014, Agnes said.

"It was a great experience," she said. "It's a miracle that such a surgery is even possible," she said, adding the couple is grateful for the work of the renal care centre at Health Sciences Centre, urging others to sign up to be a donor.

Asked whether they would be in favour of a presumed consent system, Garth was a quick "yes."

"I personally think it's a good idea with that system because now most people would like to be a donor but most don't bother signing their [donor] cards," Garth said.

Agnes was initially mixed on the prospect of an opt-out system, but changed her tune upon hearing Garth's response. She says one of their sons died a few years ago; he likely would've wanted his organs to go to someone in need; and an automatic donation system could've made that a reality, she said.

Agnes urges Manitobans to discuss end-of-life organ donation wishes with loved ones.

"I would say go for it, please. It's well worth it."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.