Mixed in with patients at Sunnybrook’s Kidney Care Centre are volunteers wearing green vests. The vests signify transplant ambassadors who have either received a kidney transplant or donated a kidney. These volunteers connect with patients at all stages of the kidney journey prior to transplant – from early onset of kidney disease to dialysis.
The benefits of kidney transplantation are numerous, including a longer survival rate, improved quality of life (patients feel better and don’t rely on the constraints of dialysis) and reduced health care costs.
“France, Claudia and the other ambassadors have an incredibly positive impact on the unit,” says Dr. Michelle Hladunewich, Director of Nephrology at Sunnybrook. “Even if a patient is not a candidate for transplant, the ambassadors answer questions and have meaningful conversations with patients and their families.”
For more information, please visit the Transplant Ambassador Program.
France Laflamme remembers the heartache of watching her younger brother’s health decline. Claude was extremely fatigued, a common symptom of kidney disease. His diagnosis wasn’t a surprise. Kidney disease runs in their family, touching their grandmother, father and other sibling.
After testing, France learned she was a match to donate a kidney to Claude.
“There’s that moment, when you’re faced with the decision, and it’s huge,” says France. “My husband reminded me that I always tell people to live in the moment and think of who is in need.”
France donated a kidney to Claude in 2014. Watching his energy levels return so quickly was rewarding, and feeling privileged and healthy, she knew she had to give something back. She became a transplant ambassador at Sunnybrook, volunteering in the hospital’s renal program by speaking with patients and families at every stage of their health journey.
“There’s nothing like connecting with someone who understands what you’re going through,” says France. “To raise awareness and educate patients and families is so impactful. It brings me joy to be able to support them.”
She explains that ambassadors aren’t part of the medical team but can provide personal perspective and answer questions about what it’s like being a donor or recipient. France says she often has conversations about returning to daily activities and recovering following a transplant.
France’s prevalent family history of kidney disease also makes her story compelling. “I always call our journey a family affair,” says France with a laugh. “In my time as an ambassador at Sunnybrook, I feel I’ve formed a new family with the kidney care team and the many patients and families I’ve met along the way.”
Claudia Morgan is tucked away in the corner of a waiting room in Sunnybrook’s Kidney Care Centre. She’s quietly speaking to a patient who has had a rough day. “Living with kidney disease can be tough,” she says after chatting with the woman and giving her a quick hug.
“I’ve found you need to take it one day at a time,” she explains. “Being on dialysis can be particularly trying.”
Looking at Claudia now, just nine months after receiving a kidney transplant, it’s hard to imagine the Toronto-based florist as anything but energetic and upbeat. A social media post by a member of her church, asking the community to see if they were a match to donate a kidney to her, altered Claudia’s future.
Hearing “I’m a match” from someone who had watched the video was life-altering. The kidney transplant was like “someone pressed the reset button for me”. Just a day after her surgery, friends and family members were commenting that her colour was so much better. Within two months, Claudia’s energy had completely returned.
“I didn’t realize how sick I was until I started to feel better.”
Claudia shares her personal history with polycystic kidney disease with patients and family members at Sunnybrook’s Kidney Care Centre. Sometimes she just asks how someone’s day is going and just listens. As one of the few ambassadors who has been on dialysis, she offers additional understanding about the ups and downs of treatment.
“I love my time here. Speaking with patients and families as an ambassador has also really helped me to understand the impact of receiving a kidney transplant. I got to start over again.”