Albertans in desperate need of kidney organ transplants turn to social media, marketing

Calgary Herald 6 minute read January 7, 2020

The bold white and green billboard was hard to miss for visitors descending into the Drumheller valley over the last few months.

“Someone we love needs a kidney donor. Type A+.”

What started as a sticker on the back of the Vogel family’s burgundy Dodge minivan last year spurred the badlands oasis into action, starting with a prominent rinkside ad erected by the Drumheller Dragons junior A hockey team. It grew into a video playing before films at the local Napier movie theatre and eventually made its way on to a fleet of transport trucks operated by Calgary-based Hi-Way 9, taking the plea province-wide.

But it was the billboards — the final piece of the puzzle in a desperate campaign to find a living kidney donor for 35-year-old James Vogel — that finally helped secure the precious, life-saving gift.

“There’s no words to describe how it all came together, how the universe just pulled it all together,” said Vogel, a week after he underwent successful transplant surgery at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre on Oct. 16.

“It just happened so fast.”

The donor, an anonymous Calgary woman, was motivated to undergo testing after seeing the billboard that greets tourists to the town known for being home to the famed Royal Tyrrell Museum and the world’s largest dinosaur replica.

With thousands of Canadians waiting for organ transplants every year, some are no longer willing to patiently wait for their turn in the queue.

Social media, marketing and creative planning are becoming more common as the number of patients in need regularly outstrips the number of organs available. It’s become especially true for those like Vogel, suffering kidney failure, because a matching live donor can quickly restore a critical function that otherwise has to be simulated by regular and often painful dialysis treatments, which in some cases can continue for several years.

In Calgary, high school shop teacher Ryan McLennan was able to secure a kidney from a stranger who saw one of the 27 billboards his loved ones had erected around the province, as they opted to take an aggressive approach to the problem.

In 2018, some 1,600 successful kidney transplants were performed across Canada, just under 200 of those in Alberta. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 people languished on a wait list, including some 400 in Alberta.

Amber Appleby, Canadian Blood Services’ director of organ and tissue donation and transplantation, said she’s well aware that patients on organ transplant waiting lists are becoming much more proactive about seeking donors instead of quietly biding their time on the wait list.

And that comes with its own challenges.

“People are reaching out on social media and different venues to do that,” Appleby said.

“It has its advantages and disadvantages. Local transplant programs encourage people to do it, but to be careful. There are a number of ethical issues we need to be careful about.”

It’s not unusual, Appleby said, for people to try to take advantage of people who make their situations public by trying to leverage that need for some quick cash. As well, in some cases that have a high profile — like Ottawa Senators’ owner Eugene Melnyk’s quest for a living liver donor in 2015 — the intake system can be overwhelmed.

For the Vogels, who have two young children, the decision was an easy one: fight or die.

“We have had some people I can’t say have been supportive in all the ways because, of course, there are people that are battling it that have been longer than us, but that’s why we put it in our hands because we knew the waiting is very long,” said Tanya, who pressed husband James to bring his story to the public in hopes of securing a kidney.

“So we put it in our own hands — he’s young enough, he has two young kids. I did whatever I had to do,” she said.

Chris Charles is a kidney dialysis patient who has been on an organ donation waitlist for two years. LARRY WONG/POSTMEDIA

Edmonton’s Chris Charles knows all about waiting.

The 44-year-old graphic designer has been in dire need of a new kidney since he experienced a series of medical complications three years ago, culminating in a diagnosis of kidney failure on Feb. 21, 2017.

Since then, he’s toiled on an organ transplant wait list while his ability to perform even the most mundane daily tasks deteriorates.

He spends four to five hours, three days a week, in a dialysis suite where he receives life-preserving treatments, while toxins are cleaned from his blood.

The waiting never gets easy, Charles said. And that’s what prompted him to take control of his situation.

“They told me, ‘Don’t expect a kidney in a year; expect more like five or seven years.’ It was like a reality check,” he said. “I kept thinking something is going to happen. I kept thinking maybe my situation was going to be different.”

Pride, Charles said, was one of his biggest hurdles. Almost as much as the soul-crushing fatigue, draconian dietary restrictions and regular dialysis treatments he likens to “jail.”

Once he overcame that, however, he found nothing but support.

“I’ve never asked anyone for help for anything in my life,” he said. “But it scared me to death thinking this is what my life is going to be now.

“I realized it was a fact that nobody was going to help me if I don’t ask.”

He took to social media, giving friends, acquaintances and the public a sometimes painfully candid glimpse into his daily life as someone experiencing renal failure.

Despite the daily rigours of his disease, he continues to provide updates while he continues his own pursuit of a life-changing kidney donation.

James Vogel received a kidney from an anonymous donor after a three-year search. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Calgary

For the Vogels, now adjusting to a new and happy reality in which James has a new lease on life, the lesson learned from their quest for an organ donor is one they suggest others can emulate.

Even as James recovers from surgery, and they look to return to a normal life, he said they plan to keep the signs and stickers up, hoping at the very least to educate more people about how choosing to donate an organ can transform a life.

“Don’t suffer in silence. Get out there and ask, you know, spread your story, share your story or just outright talk about it,” he said.

“We’re going to push it even more now than ever because I want people to know you don’t have to suffer in silence. You can save a life — it’s proven right here.”

If you’re interested in testing to be a potential kidney donor for Charles, call 1-780-407-8698, ext. 3, and tell them you’d like to be tested. Those who aren’t a match but would still like to donate can enter the kidney paired donation program, which allows a potential donor to donate to another person in need. For more information on the paired program, call 1-780-777-4119.