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Planning to give the gift of life

By Lorraine Graves

Published 1:23 PST, Thu December 19, 2019

Christmas takes on a special meaning when the best gift you ever received was the gift of health and a normal life.

Eleven years ago, Rob Hammerschmidt received a kidney from his father. 

He remembers the holidays in 2008. His kidney function was failing. They had been killed off by a congenital condition. Born with the problem, after many surgeries there was nothing more they could do. Things were shutting down and Hammerschmidt did not feel well. 

“I was off for that Christmas,” he says. “I spent the time with my family and my dad. I had my transplant right after Christmas.” 

What was it like when he woke up?

“It was fantastic. I noticed a difference immediately and I would say within five days I could feel my body healthier than it had been before. It was just a matter of recovering from the surgery. I was back to work within eight or 10 weeks,” he says.  

Hammerschmidt was lucky. His dad was a good donor match and healthy enough to give his son one of his kidneys. 

Most people are not so lucky. Hearts, lungs and many other organs cannot come from a living donor. Then there are those for whom a matched living donor does not exist. 

That’s where you come in. There are two things you can do this holiday season. One is to go to TakeTwoMinutes.ca and literally spend the two minutes it takes to see if you are registered as a donor and to sign up if you’re not. 

“You literally put in your care card number and you can check. If you’re not registered to be an organ donor, you can put in that info right there and you’re registered,” he says.

As of this month, 1.5 million people in B.C. have registered. That’s well over one third of the province’s adult population. 

The second thing you can do is to speak that one sentence when you are gathered with friends and family this year: “I signed up to be an organ donor.” 

“The holidays are a great time to do that,” says Hammerschmidt, though he recognizes that it’s not the most comfortable subject to talk about. If something down the road does happen, you’ve been able to have that conversation with your family.” 

So far this year, there have been 443 transplants in B.C. but there are 759 patients still waiting on the transplant list. Were there enough suitable organs, not only would that waiting list disappear, but more people could receive their transplants before they were so acutely ill. That increases the chances that things will go well. 

Because Hammerschmidt had a living donor, he never had to go onto dialysis, the life-saving treatment that is also life-altering, zapping energy tying most patients to a locale and a routine. If kidney transplant is not an option, the average life span of someone on dialysis, according to the National Kidney Foundation, is five to 10 years—far less that the 11 and counting Hammerschmidt has received. 

Today, Hammerschmidt enjoys travelling.

“I’ve been to every continent,” he says, going on to list the other big things that he wouldn’t have today without the transplant. “I’ve done some pretty awesome stuff. I’ve gotten married, that’s a really big thing. The ability to travel and see the world has been the biggest thing for me.”

“I ski in the winter and in the summer I ride bike.”

A resident of Richmond, Hammerschmidt works as a manager at SportCheck in Park Royal. 

Today, with a family, a job and a significant commute Hammerschmidt doesn’t run competitively anymore but he says, “After my transplant I was really into running. I did a bunch of races. Before the transplant, I couldn’t.”

Hammerschmidt understands that no one wants to think about what will happen when they pass away.

But, he says, “When I’m not here, if I can change someone’s life and give then a second lease on life and let them experience life fully, I would make that happen without a thought.”

He says, “With my transplant, and for everyone who’s gotten a transplant, it really is a second lease on life.”

He says it gives the recipients, like him the ability, “To go out and do what you want to do with your life, without any restrictions.”

Today, there are 5,154 alive in BC because they received an organ transplant. 

And what does he look forward to this Christmas?

Hammerschmidt says, “It means a lot to be able to spend it with my family. My dad was a teacher at Richmond High. He taught Geography and PE when he retired but had taught Socials and German and all sorts of stuff.”

It sounds like, he also taught his son the meaning of giving.  

Go to transplant.bc.ca for more information.

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