February 19, 2022

Man waiting years for a kidney transplant may have surgery delayed further due to COVID-19

Roy Dahl’s bags are packed at the door as he waits for a call that would save his life — the news that after years of dialysis treatment, he will finally be receiving a kidney transplant.

Dahl is in end-stage kidney failure, and has been on a waiting list for transplant for seven years.

“It’ll save my life,” he told CTV News. “It will be like winning the lottery.”

But, like many people in Canada, Dahl is dealing with the added agony of a potential delay as the fifth wave of COVID-19 floods hospitals.

“I just got a call last week from the transplant co-ordinator saying: ‘You’re number one on the list, and you will get a kidney soon, but we just have to make accommodations for COVID-19 cases,’” Dahl said.

So close, yet so far away. Across the country, provinces have cancelled or delayed thousands of surgeries since the pandemic began.

“We only have capacity in the system for immediately life-threatening things,” Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, told CTV News.

There are no real short-term solutions to address the backlog.

“Things that are urgent, including kidney transplants, other organ transplants, some cancer surgeries are being delayed, and the impact on Canadians is huge,” Smart said.

The impact on Dahl is that he must go for dialysis three times a week for four-and-a-half hours each time.

The 61-year-old grandfather is Ojibway, and according to the Kidney Foundation of Canada, Indigenous people are more than three times more likely to have kidney failure than non-Indigenous people.

Complicating things is that those undergoing dialysis for kidney failure are at a higher risk than many groups when it comes to COVID-19.

One study from 2020 found that dialysis patients who contracted COVID-19 had a 20 to 30 per cent mortality rate.

If dialysis patients are receiving their dialysis treatment in a hospital or a dedicated centre outside of their home, they also risk exposure to the virus, due to the travel needed for multiple life-sustaining dialysis treatments per week.

For those with end-stage kidney failure, there is no cure. Those suffering from it have to go on dialysis either for the rest of their life, or until they can secure a kidney transplant.

When the time comes for Dahl to receive his new kidney, he will have to travel from Yellowknife to Edmonton for the procedure.

For now, all he can do is wait.

“I jump every time that phone rings,” Dahl said. “I keep hoping that it’s that call from the renal unit in Edmonton.”

Alberta Health Services said transplant services have continued during the pandemic, but added that some surgeries have been delayed by factors including whether critical care beds are available. 

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