Kidney of a champion

Living each day to the fullest is paramount for Don Campbell, who’s been told he can’t receive any more kidneys after his third transplant. - Adrian MacNair photo
Living each day to the fullest is paramount for Don Campbell, who’s been told he can’t receive any more kidneys after his third transplant.
— image credit: Adrian MacNair photo

Tsawwassen resident Don Campbell figures the best kidney he’s received yet came from either a child or a gangster.

It wasn’t too difficult for the 46-year-old, who has battled kidney disease since he was a toddler, to deduce the origin of his organ.

While the B.C. Transplant Society has long enacted a confidentiality clause to protect donor families and recipients, fortunately, for closure’s sake alone, news reports can be of assistance.

Some organ beneficiaries, like Campbell, look at the timing of the accident and put together the pieces themselves.

It’s a small piece of comfort in the face of an arduous path to transplant recovery filled with anxiety and anti-rejection drugs.

As a 14-year-old, Campbell waited impatiently for 18 months on the kidney transplant list. Being routinely shuttled in and out of hospitals for tests and treatments caused the then-teenager to fall behind at school and be pegged a slow learner.

When his kidney arrived, another weight was lifted: four-times-daily peritoneal dialysis which sees a blood-filtering fluid administered through a catheter fed into the patient’s abdomen.

“I would come home and sleep. Basically I didn’t do too much then because I had a negative attitude,” recalls Campbell, who today, sitting in the South Delta Recreation Centre, punctuates most of the conversation with a hearty laugh.

The fateful call came just after midnight while Central Butte, Saskatchewan, Campbell’s hometown – population 439 as of 1996 – was slumbering.

“I ran outside in my pyjamas and yelled at the top of my lungs ‘I got a transplant’,” smiles Campbell at the memory.

Elsewhere in the city, a family was grieving. It was an older person, a car accident victim. Campbell will never know his kidney’s first owner, but he can ascertain one thing: their last act was a selfless one.

"You feel very grateful that you have a second chance. You want to thank them," says Campbell.

There is an avenue for acknowledgement of organ donors. Recipients can write a letter to the B.C. Transplant Society who

will then forward it on to the donor family. As well, an annual celebration in Vancouver is an opportunity for transplantees to give a collective thanks.

Campbell has three guardian angels to be grateful for. He honours them, while simultaneously promoting organ donation awareness, by running his heart out and logging 10-pin strikes during the Canadian Transplant Games.

Propelled by a healthy set of organs, and second chances, participants boast strong, posttransplant bodies during the multi-sport event held every two years.

Campbell is one of the veteran athletes. He's been to four Canadian Games – described as a family reunion of sorts – and one World Transplant Games, for more serious competitors. Long distance running, badminton and bowling are his strong suits.

He likes keeping active because he knows his health can change in a heartbeat.

Six years after receiving that first kidney it began to fail. He was 21 years old and working as a chef in Saskatoon. There were no real alarming symptoms to Campbell's renal failure. Feeling tired and sluggish comes with the territory of a restaurant industry career.

Fortunately he only had to wait four months this time for a new kidney. The new lease on life inspired Campbell to explore the rest of the country and find a way to pay it forward in the process.

He arrived in Vancouver in 1995 and began working for Life Line Outreach, a Downtown Vancouver non-profit society that aids the homeless. Campbell's duties involved the pickup and delivery of produce and clothing.

And like many warriors recovering from a traumatic illness he found solace in dragon boating. A decade ago he assumed the role of beat-keeping drummer until he found a seat in the boat.

Campbell credits his fellow paddlers, along with Ladner Christian Fellowship parishioners, for giving him to strength to push ahead. His last go-around with renal failure lasted six years.

"The depression was so strong," describes Campbell.

Then on Nov. 5, 2010, at 2 p.m. in the afternoon – Campbell remembers the time of each call from the transplant team – came word that his third kidney to date had been harvested.

"It's the best kidney I've had. The healthiest I have ever felt," he reports, further revealing that his creatinine levels, which measure kidney function, are in the normal range.

Technically, Campbell has four kidneys inside him. His first two, located in the normal position near the middle of his back, were never removed after they failed, as is standard kidney transplant protocol.

The other two bean-shaped organs that Campbell received were inverted and inserted at the front near his abdomen.

This past July the Tsawwassen resident returned home from the most recent Canadian Transplant Games in Calgary where he medaled in 10-pin bowling, lawn bowling and two badminton events – three silvers and a bronze in all.

For a guy who was once bridled by dialysis treatment, these Games are an opportunity for him to see the world. This year it was the Calgary Stampede that he got to experience. He now has his sights set on the World Transplant Games in South Africa next year.

"You try and live a normal life as much as possible," says Campbell, who works in construction and landscaping.

Living each day to the fullest is paramount for Campbell who's been told he won't be allowed to receive any more kidneys.

One day he may have to call on his identical twin brother, who lives in Edmonton and who suffers from mild cerebral palsy, as a final resort.

"If I was dire straits dying he would give [a kidney] to me," says Campbell, whose brother is 99.9 per cent match. "We were like best friends growing up."

That desperation draws focus to the need for more organ donors. There are 375 people in this province currently waiting for a kidney as of June 14, according to B.C. Transplant Society statistics.

"All you do is go to the [B.C. Transplant] website and sign yourself up," explains Campbell, of the simplicity of enrolling in the organ donor registry.

He speculates that potential donors might be scared or hesitant because they are not informed. Campbell's own sobering statistics speak for themselves: he has lost several friends to organ failure.

"It's devastating because you are going through the same thing," he says.

For more information on the BC organ donor registry visit

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