Jessica Bailey is still alive.
She didn’t expect it. Her doctors told her she was palliative and for years she had less than one per cent kidney function.
She had a transplant surgery booked in September 2021 but, barely a week after securing the date, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) postponed her operation – along with thousands of other surgeries so they could reassign staff amid COVID-19 pressures on the health system.
Bailey finally received the transplant last November, nearly four years after she was first diagnosed with kidney failure.
“(I) didn’t think it was going to happen, for the struggle that I was going through,” she said. “There’s not even a word for it. It’s just like you’re basically getting your life back.”
A new report shows that’s happening for more and more people, with the number of organ transplant surgeries approaching 2019 levels after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed so many, by “(placing) an unprecedented burden on health care systems in Canada and around the world.”
According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), 2,750 solid organ transplants were performed in Canada in 2021, which is only eight per cent less than the 2019 amount.
The amount of dead and living donors is also rebounding.
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“There’s certainly an impact and one that I expect to continue to have a catch-up period,” CIHI researcher Nicole De Guia said, adding that the numbers don’t capture people who need organs but who weren’t on waitlists.
The report, which gathers information from provincial health and transplant organizations, says 1,673 kidney transplants took place nationally in 2021, with 3,060 people still waiting for the procedure.
And it found that 105 people died waiting.
“Although we’re approaching the pre-pandemic (levels), it’s just clear that there’s a lot more work to do because we want to continue to increase and meet the demand,” De Guia said, speaking from Toronto.
CIHI’s findings also show Saskatchewan lagged behind the national figures. Where the country collectively had seven per cent fewer surgeries in 2021 compared to 2019, Saskatchewan had 45 per cent fewer surgeries.
“These are data, De Guia said, “but they’re critically ill patients and (the delay) impacts on their families and support systems as well.
“So really… we still have a long way to go.”
Global News asked the SHA how many people are waiting for kidney transplants and if the Health Authority had cleared the COVID-19 surgery backlog.
They did not answer by publication deadline.
Jessica said she was very lucky to survive her kidney failure.
Her health deteriorated after her surgery was postponed. She was on dialysis and suffered a hematoma (a pooling of blood in her body) and caught COVID-19. She struggled to get healthy enough to receive the organ.
Her sister Melanie also struggled to get healthy.
Doctors told her she needed lower blood pressure to be able to give an organ.
She donated her kidney to her sister.
“It wasn’t even a question,” Melanie said. “It was just ‘how do we get this done?’”
Jessica grew emotional when asked about what her sister did for her.
“There’s no repaying that, right? I could barely even talk, but it makes me get choked up,” Jessica said.
Both sisters wanted to thank the health-care staff who kept Jessica alive.
She told Global News she expects it will take a year to recover but hoped to be back to work by December.
And the sisters want to travel together, something they haven’t been able to do since Jessica became sick.
Read more: Saskatchewan man calls for changes in organ donations for gay men after late husband’s tissues disqualified
For anyone still waiting for a transplant, her message is simple.
“I was so close to death so many times, I would just say to them, keep fighting and work with your doctors and nurses,” she said.
“It’s not over till it’s over, because I thought it was over plenty of times. And here I am now with the kidney.”