Saved by brother from icy waters as a youth, Cree marathon runner returns favour with kidney donation

A Cree marathon runner from the James Bay community of Mistissini is giving his brother a special Christmas gift this year - a healthy kidney and freedom from dialysis.

Brother makes living donation of kidney, but many more await kidney transplants

Wally Rabbitskin, left, donated his kidney to his brother Tommy on Tuesday. (Submitted by Stefon Rabbitskin)

A Cree marathon runner from the James Bay community of Mistissini is giving his brother a special Christmas gift this year — a healthy kidney and freedom from dialysis.

Wally Rabbitskin, 56, donated a kidney to his older brother Tommy, 58, in an operation carried out Tuesday at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.

For the younger Rabbitskin, the decision was a chance to say thank you for a long-ago good deed.

"They got me out of the water," said Wally, recalling a day back in the 1960's, when he was 7 or 8.

The brothers and a friend had been playing hockey on a not-quite-frozen river near Mistissini, when the ice gave way under Wally after he had volunteered to go fetch a puck lying uncomfortably close to open water.

Wally could see his brother Tommy and the other boy were scared and almost ready to bolt.

"I yelled to them and told them, 'Don't run away,'" said Wally, who describes being dragged into the river by snow pants soaked with water.

"Then they came, they used their hockey sticks to pull me [out]."

Wally says this is the story that came to mind when his brother Tommy told him he was very sick with kidney failure.

"I thought this is my opportunity to return the favour to him," said Wally.

More donors needed

Tommy was one of 11 Cree patients on a transplant list, according to David Stroppolo, a case manager with Cree Patient Services of the Cree health board.

There are more than another 20 patients being evaluated for transplants, and more than 70 Cree patients currently on dialysis in Chisasibi, Mistissini, Chibougamau and Montreal. Many of them will eventually need transplants, according to Stroppolo.   

"Live donation isn't that prevalent in the northern territory," said Stroppolo, adding it's something the board would like to change.

"It's a lot of kidneys that we need."

Stroppolo says the health board hopes Wally's story will help demystify the procedure and inspire others to consider becoming a live organ donor, something he says can dramatically improve the lives of other Cree people.  

"In most cases a kidney starts [working] within a few hours [after transplant]," said Stroppolo. "Tommy yesterday [Monday] hopefully had his last dialysis. It's life changing."

Wally Rabbitskin, far right, Near Eastmain on one of the final days of the walk-a-thon to raise awareness of diabetes in Eeyou Istchee, August 2012. (CBHSSJB)

After an initial screening and tests in the community, a potential donor needs to come to Montreal for a series of tests and meetings with a social work team.

Stroppolo says a donor doesn't need to be a close family member, as with the Rabbitskin brothers, but does need to be in good physical shape, with no underlying health issues like diabetes or high blood pressure.

With a passion for marathon running, Wally Rabbitskin was a perfect candidate to donate a kidney to his brother. But that same passion is what worried him most.

"My only concern is that everything will be OK and that I will be able to do the things I loved doing, running the marathon," said Wally.

"This is one of my goals once I finish this (donating a kidney to my brother) I want to run a marathon."

Stroppolo says Rabbitskin should be able to run marathons again after recovering from the surgery.

He added anyone interested in finding out whether they could be a live organ donor should contact Debbie Harmidy at the transplant clinic at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal at 514-934-1934 ext. 36003.

With files from Stefon Rabbitskin and Corinne Smith