February 14, 2018 7:08 pm
Updated: February 14, 2018 7:12 pm

Ontario couple marks unique anniversary on Valentine’s Day

You might call it the ultimate act of love -- a husband saves the life of his wife by donating an organ to a complete stranger. And as Caryn Lieberman reports, it all happened on Valentine's Day.


Joanne Kearney and her husband Brendan Cahill sip tea and snack on a bowl full of scones in their Toronto home, as they discuss what to do on Valentine’s Day.

Cahill will be in Montreal on business, so he invited his wife to join him for a special dinner to mark the occasion.

Valentine’s Day means a lot to the married couple of six years, because last Feb. 14, as other couples shared chocolate and sipped champagne, Kearney received the gift of life.

“November 2015 I went into what they call end stage kidney disease,” she said.

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Kearney lived with one kidney for most of her life, but five years ago it began deteriorating at an accelerated rate. She needed a new kidney. The question was, who would donate it.

“It was obviously going to be me, there was no doubt,” her husband said.

Cahill was set on donating his left kidney to his wife.

“He was jumping on top of the rooftops saying it’s going to be me, while we also said, should my sister or my brother get worked up, should my parents, should friends? But he knew from day one he wanted to be the living donor,” Kearney said.

But it wouldn’t be that simple.

The couple learned her immune system would attack 85 per cent of potential donors, including her husband.

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“I wasn’t a viable donor so that was a really, really tough week,” Cahill remembered.

That is when they learned about the Kidney Paired Donation Program run by Canadian Blood Services.

“Donors and recipients can be matched with other donors and recipients who are also incompatible, to create compatible pairs often from across Canada,” Dr. Kathryn Tinkham, transplant nephrologist at the University Health Network, explained.

Essentially, Cahill would give someone a kidney, and Kearney would receive a much better match from someone else.

“It means you don’t have to wait nearly as long to get a transplanted organ, you don’t need to be on a wait list,” Tinkham said about the benefits to the program. “For living donor transplants when you find a suitable donor the transplant can occur as soon as the recipient is appropriately healthy.”

Best of all, according to Tinkham, “on average they can last 20 to 25 per cent longer, which means that patients aren’t going back on the wait list soon if they need a second or third transplant.”

So on Valentine’s Day of last year, Kearney was admitted to hospital for her transplant.

“That is a very romantic part of the story,” Kearney giggled.

Her husband would donate his kidney two days later.

“Brendan is this amazing person and amazing partner in life, he did something that…I shouldn’t start crying!” Kearney said with tears filling her eyes.

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“When you love someone it’s just what you do, right?” Cahill responded.

He became serious though, when he emphasized the importance of organ donation.

“This is just something that anybody should do, any Canadian should do,” he said. “People need to have these discussions long in advance of there being actual need.”

The couple is now involved with the University Health Network because, as Cahill noted, they want to get the word out for “people to be thinking well in advance of the opportunity.

“It’s not an imposition, it’s an opportunity.”

Back in the kitchen, munching on scones from their favourite St.Clair bakery, Kearney joked with Cahill about their Valentine’s Day plans.

“Well you don’t need to give me a gift, I think we’re good for a few years!”

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