Half century for medical miracle

The 50th anniversary for Canada’s longest surviving single kidney transplant recipient is one for the record books.

Kidney transplant patient Johanna Nightingale holds a doll given her by John F. Kennedy. That girl

Kidney transplant patient Johanna Nightingale holds a doll given her by John F. Kennedy. That girl

The 50th anniversary for Canada’s longest surviving single kidney transplant recipient is one for the record books.

On Dec. 28, 1960, 12-year-old Lana Nightingale donated her kidney to her identical twin sister Johanna.

Surgery on the sisters, from Steinbach, Man., was performed at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, Mass. Dr. Joseph Murray, who performed the world’s first human kidney transplant in 1954 and was a Nobel prize recipient, led the medical team.

“I remember going into the operating room. My sister was in the (operating room) right next to me and we could see each other through a little window,” said Johanna, whose last name is now Rempel, and who has lived in Red Deer since 1983.

The summer before the surgery, her parents were warned that she had about three months to live. A kidney transplant was her only hope. A childhood illness had damaged her kidneys.

At the time, the transplant procedure was only done with twins. Anti-rejection drugs were not yet available. They were the youngest twins to undergo a kidney transplant to that date.

“Transplants have really changed a lot in 50 years. They are a common thing. They are transplanting faces and hands,” said Rempel, who has volunteered with the Kidney Foundation of Canada.

Prior to the surgery, she spent about three weeks out of four in hospital in Winnipeg. One winter, she lapsed into a coma for about three months.

Lana, whose last name is now Blatz, said there was no question about it. She wanted to give one of her kidneys to her twin.

“We shared everything,” said Blatz, who lives in Redcliff, only four and a half hours away from her sister in Red Deer.

Blatz even went before a Supreme Court judge in Boston to get approval to do the surgery because she was underage.

The twins did, and still do, share a special bond.

“When I woke up from the surgery . . . I just knew she was OK. I could just feel it. Even though she wasn’t beside me. Nobody told me. I just knew it. I had that feeling,” Blatz said.

The worst part was waiting for Rempel to wake after her second surgery to remove her failing kidneys a few months later, she said.

The twins weren’t able to return to the hospital for the transplant surgery’s anniversary last month, but intend to visit in May.

Both have fond memories of the hospital staff and the doctors.

“I never really felt scared. The nurses were really great. One time they were taking blood pressures of patients and they let me write down on the charts what the reading was. They always involved me in stuff. I don’t remember feeling lonely or bored,” Blatz said.

One secretary taught the twins how to use a typewriter and they helped around the office.

Rempel said they had the run of the hospital.

“They had a theatre with a blackboard where doctors would have their meetings. We’d go and play on the blackboards. The doctors would come in and there’d be all these drawings. They’d say: ‘I know who did this,’” she laughed.

They played with a doll from U.S. President-elect John F. Kennedy, who came by to attend a rally.

“I played nurse with it. I gave it intravenouses. That’s his bed,” said Rempel, pointing to a picture of a doll wrapped in blankets near her hospital bed.

According the latest Canadian Organ Replacement Registry report, the number of Canadians living with kidney failure has been steadily increasing for 20 years. Rates now seem to be stabilizing, but the supply of kidneys available for transplant has not kept pace with the demand.

In 2009, the rate of newly diagnosed patients was more than double the rate in 1990.

In 2009, close to 38,000 Canadians were living with kidney failure and about 3,000 people were waiting for a kidney transplant.

Kim Worton, Human Organ Procurement Exchange Program (HOPE) and Living Donor Unit manager with Transplant Services at Alberta Health Services, said the rate of organ donation in Alberta is the lowest in Canada.

She had no explanation, but work is underway to promote donation.

“Often people think if they’re a certain age or if they have a certain disease, they wouldn’t be able to donate organs. Organs are assessed on a functioning basis, not on a person’s age. It’s all about the health of the organ,” Worton said.

In April 2009, Alberta became part of Canadian Blood Services Living Donor Paired Exchange program. When friends or relatives are unable to be living kidney donors because their blood group or tissue type is incompatible with their intended recipient, they can join the program to donate their kidney to a stranger and their loved one has the opportunity to access a kidney from the exchange program.

Diabetes continues to be the most common cause of kidney failure in Canada. One in three people with kidney failure has diabetes.