Senator Nicole Eaton gave kidney through paired donation to help her husband

When Senator Nicole Eaton's husband needed a kidney, she wasn't a compatible donor. But through paired donation, she was able to give her kidney to someone else to find her husband a match. Now she wants Canadians to know about the options for being a living donor.

'We had a very symbiotic relationship,' senator says of husband Thor Eaton, who died of heart attack in April

Senator Nicole Eaton participated in a paired kidney donation program run by Canadian Blood Services that allowed her to donate a kidney to someone compatible with her blood type in exchange for someone else contributing a donor kidney to her husband Thor, now deceased. (Senator Nicole Eaton)

Senator Nicole Eaton's heart is on the mend, but the sudden death of her husband seven weeks ago is still fresh.

Thor Eaton died in April, just two months after receiving a life-saving kidney transplant.

"He died of a heart attack, it had nothing to do with his kidney," she said, before quickly looking down to smooth the fabric of her skirt.

In December, 2015, Thor Eaton learned his kidneys were failing. He began dialysis and his wife started exploring options, including giving him one of her kidneys.

"We had a very symbiotic relationship. Whatever happened to him, happened to me," she said, quietly, during an interview in her sunny office on Parliament Hill.

After undergoing a battery of medical tests, doctors broke the news that even though she was a strong candidate to donate a kidney, her blood type was incompatible with her husband's.

That's when the Eatons learned about kidney paired donation.

"It's this wonderful program where they find a perfect match for me and they find a perfect match for him," Eaton said.

How paired donation works

Through the national kidney paired donation program, run by Canadian Blood Services, someone who needs a kidney transplant pairs up with someone who is willing and able to donate one. Their medical information is entered into a computer registry filled with other incompatible couples in the hopes of finding a match.

Kidneys from living donors often function better and last longer than those from donors who have passed away because they come from healthy people, explained Dr. Kathryn Tinckam, a transplant nephrologist at Toronto General Hospital and adviser to Canadian Blood Services.

Dr. Kathryn Tinckham says the paired donor program has facilitated 500 transplants since 2009. (Joe Fiorino/CBC News)

"[Kidney paired transplant] gives them an opportunity to not only get a transplant but to get a living donor transplant. And most importantly, from the Canadian health care system perspective, those individuals are not added to the provincial deceased donor wait lists, so they are not increasing wait times for those individuals who are dependent on deceased donor transplantation," said Tinckam.

About 2,900 Canadians are waiting for a kidney transplant at any given time, Tinckam said. The paired donation program, while small, has resulted in 500 successful transplants since the program launched in 2009.

"We have a sophisticated allocation and matching software to look for pairs, groups and chains of donor exchanges within this group of registrants to then identify compatible pairs that can be created and proceed to transplant," Tinckam told CBC News.

The computer found a good match for the Eatons. They had their respective surgeries in February. 

"The donor goes to the recipient. So I had to go to another city. My husband stayed in Toronto and it is amazingly easy," the senator said.

'In a heartbeat'

After a two-day stay in the hospital, Eaton reunited with her husband. She said they recuperated quickly and before long, her husband was talking about his desire to head to the cottage and swim in the lake.

But on April 10, Thor Eaton died of a sudden heart attack unrelated to his kidney transplant, at the age of 73. And while it is clearly still a raw topic to discuss, Eaton agreed to speak about her experience in the hope that others will hear about paired donation and consider participating.

Senator Nicole Eaton says that although her husband subsequently died for reasons unrelated to the kidney transplant, she regrets nothing about participating in the donor pairing program. (Christian Patry/CBC News)

"Given my experience, I'd do it [again] in a heartbeat. I think, certainly, for a spouse, for your children, for a close friend," said Eaton.

There may also be another option for paired donations in the future.

Tinckam pointed to a program in the United States through which people can donate a kidney on behalf of someone who will need one in the future. In effect, giving their loved one, typically a child, a gift certificate for life.

About the Author

Alison Crawford

Politics

Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.

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