On June 19, Debi Pearce became a live donor of her left kidney to 30-year-old Geoff Dunsire. After a four-hour surgery, she posted on Facebook from her hospital bed, “I’m all done and in my room. Feeling good. Just waiting to hear how Geoff’s doing. He’s in surgery now.”
Geoff’s mother Tracey followed it up by posting a picture of a smiling Pearce with her thumbs up, while still hooked to intravenous tubes. With a clean bill of health, Pearce was sent home two days later, while Dunsire recovered for another week in the hospital after a life-saving and successful kidney transplant. “They (The Dunsires) call me their Angel on Earth,” says a humbled Pearce.
She has been selling real estate in Maple Ridge, B.C. for 16 years with her husband Don Pearce at Royal LePage Brookside Realty. When they received a referral from a friend about selling a prospective client’s property in early 2018, little did they know it would be the beginning of a Realtor-client relationship unlike any other in the business.
All their friend mentioned at the time was that the Dunsire family was interested in buying an acreage for their large family, and that their son Geoff was quite ill. In June 2018, the Pearces listed the Dunsire’s home for sale.
During their visits, Pearce would often notice that Dunsire would be in a darkened room. In July 2018, after reading a newspaper article, she learned that was because he was recovering from the dialysis treatment that he was receiving three days a week. It was only then that she realised just how sick Dunsire was and that he was facing life-threatening kidney failure.
When he was 13, Dunsire contracted an incurable liver disease due to an adverse reaction to a hepatitis-B vaccine. Since then, for the better part of his life, he has been in and out of hospitals for a liver transplant and treatments for lost vision, paralysis from the neck down and other severe health complications.
Pearce says her first reaction to learning about Dunsire’s failing health was, “Oh, how very sad.” But then she says she thought, “If everyone said those words and no one stepped forward, his life would continue along that path with no hope of any normal existence.” She also pondered, “What if this was me and no one stepped forward?” This spurred Pearce into investigating the process of becoming a living kidney donor.
The Organ Project, a non-profit founded by Eugene Melnyk, the owner and chairman of the Ottawa Senators, says, “There are over 4,500 people waiting for an organ donation in Canada. Sadly, about 260 of those people waiting for a transplant will die every year. That’s about five deaths per week, or one death about every 30 hours that could be saved if they had a viable donor.”
Further research specific to kidney donation revealed that almost 77 per cent of 4,500 Canadians are on the waiting list for a kidney. Of those on dialysis, a mere 16 per cent are waiting for a transplant. The survival rate for patients receiving a kidney from a live donor is 90 per cent, as opposed to 82 per cent from deceased donors.
In 2017, the deceased donor rate in Canada saw an increase of 51 per cent since 2008, while the living donor rate saw a decrease of 11 per cent during the same period. The Canadian Institute for Health Information says that 16 per cent of Canadians on dialysis receiving a kidney from a deceased donor survive past 10 years, while a staggering 74 per cent of Canadians with kidneys from live donors survive past 10 years. There is no doubt that a live kidney lasts longer and works right away, as opposed to one from a deceased donor that may take a few days or weeks to start functioning.
During the early stages of being tested as a match for Dunsire, Pearce also awakened to an ironic and shocking reality – one that significantly reduced her chances of donating to Dunsire and dashed his family’s hopes. She found out she was pre-diabetic herself and that a day might come when she could be on a waiting list to receive a kidney transplant.
At first, “I was very disheartened and frustrated,” says Pearce. But she was determined to save Dunsire’s life, never once second-guessing her decision to be a live donor. She knew she had to get healthy. She started by walking every day, graduating from 7,000 steps a day to 10,000 steps, to seven km, to her new normal of 10 km a day.
“I started that regimen after the second failed test, early in December. I got my blood sugar tested, took a diabetes management class, was sent to an endocrinologist for assessment, started tracking what I was eating and making better lifestyle choices,” she says. By March 2019, she had lost 17 lbs., lowered her daily blood sugar and blood pressure, and was ready to be tested again. This time she was green-lighted for donation. At the time of donation, Pearce ’s kidney was not perfect match, but it was as close to perfect as she could get.
A week after her donation, Pearce was back to work in her office, albeit for half a day. All the while, her 86-year-old mother, siblings, Don, the Dunsire family and friends championed her efforts and joined her in raising $7,300 towards the Kidney Foundation’s goal of raising $300,000 for awareness about the cause.
As Pearce makes steady strides towards gaining back her health and resuming her real estate career, post surgery, Dunsire is gearing to make a full recovery with her “super kidney”, as she calls it. While both their solo but healthy kidneys will gradually expand to do the work of two, their collective prognosis is a long and healthy life.
“Life will continue along as before. There will be no long-term effects on my health or my ability to work or enjoy life. There is no risk of developing any future health complications that would be attributable to my donation,” says Pearce.
Her real estate community has celebrated her selflessness. Her advocacy for the cause led one of the agents in her office to consider donating their kidney as well. “I think if we polled all Realtors, we would find many stories of above and beyond,” says Pearce. “This is mine. We are in the business of helping people, it doesn’t necessarily stop at the front door of a new home.”