What do purebred cattle, cross-country travel and nine grandchildren have in common? They are all part of Katrine and Ed Conroy’s unique love story. In the 37 years that Katrine and Ed have been married, they have weathered more adversity than most couples endure in a lifetime.
Ed’s complicated health history began in 1991 when he lost a kidney to cancer. This was the same year he ran in the provincial election and became an MLA. Unfortunately, Ed’s health struggles intensified and in 1993 he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. This came as a shock, as Ed was unaware he was infected and did not know how he contracted the disease. By 1996 Ed’s liver was failing and he underwent his first liver transplant. Ed experienced many complications related to the anti-rejection drugs and it soon became evident he would need a second transplant. Ed was fortunate to receive his second liver transplant in the fall of 1997.
For almost a decade, things were going okay. Ed and Katrine raised 4 children, saw 9 grandchildren arrive, worked on their purebred cattle farm, and continued in politics with Katrine being elected for the first time in 2005 and again in 2009. Ed however, was faced with many ongoing health challenges that in 2006 resulted in his remaining kidney failing and the start of dialysis. This was an incredibly challenging time for Ed and Katrine. Dialysis meant lengthy travel to and from the regional dialysis unit in Trail three times a week, which took on average seven hours each trip. Ed remembers staying alive literally felt “like having a part time job”.
While dialysis kept Ed alive, it offered a very poor quality of life. He felt lousy and exhausted. Sometimes complications meant traveling to Kelowna. The reality was clear: Ed would not live much longer without a kidney transplant. However, his options were extremely limited. Due to his age and health he did not qualify for a deceased donor transplant. Any one of Ed’s four children would have gladly given a kidney to save their father but none of them proved to be matches. Witnessing the lengths their children would go to save their father made Katrine wonder “What about me? If the kids can do it, why can’t I?”
Katrine started the process to become Ed’s donor, but she was devastated when she learned she was not a match either, “compatible in life, just not blood type”. Their love story would not end here. Domino transplants were becoming a recognised practice as part of the Kidney Paired Donation Program (KPD) operated by Canadian Blood Services. A domino transplant is a series of kidney transplants that involve numerous pairs of incompatible donors and recipients. The remarkable part of this type of kidney exchange is that it begins with a non-directed donor. This means the donor is not connected to anyone in need of a transplant. They are anonymously and altruistically donating their kidney to a complete stranger.
Katrine and Ed were added to the Canadian Transplant Registry and they began the wait for a match as part of the KPD program. In April 2010, the call finally came – there was a match. Katrine recalls “I remember it so vividly, sitting in my office in the Legislature in Victoria, the coordinator telling me they had a match for Ed and the surgery would be the beginning of May”. Their life became a whirlwind, planning for two surgeries, organizing Katrine’s leave from the Legislature, and coordinating support systems for both Ed and Katrine. Ed would need to remain in Vancouver for his surgery while Katrine traveled to Toronto for her surgery.
It was not easy to be apart as they had always been at each other’s side. Katrine says, “I had always been his support person and suddenly we realized I wasn’t going to be there”. Their youngest daughter, Sasha, was able to travel to Toronto to be with her mom during the surgery and recovery. Meanwhile, Ed was sitting up in bed smiling and enjoying his new kidney just hours after his surgery! It wasn’t until he had a healthy kidney that Ed realised how sick he had been. Three weeks later Katrine was on a plane headed back to be with Ed and they slowly healed together.
The change in Ed since receiving his new kidney is truly remarkable. He is back working on the farm and enjoying life. Ed is looking forward to seeing his two eldest granddaughters graduate this June. The couple is making the most of Ed’s gift of life. They recently traveled to Phoenix and saw the Grand Canyon, a trip they never dreamed would happen. Katrine may be one kidney less, but this has not slowed her down. In 2013 and 2017 she ran for provincial office and was appointed the Minister of Children and Family Development in July. Katrine has watched her beloved husband come close to death far too many times and understands better than anyone what organ donation means “The three transplants he has had have enabled him to see all our kids grow up, three of them married and the birth of nine grandkids.”
However, Katrine and Ed are all too aware that transplantation is not a cure. The anti-rejection medication transplant recipients are required to take comes with numerous and deadly side effects, including an increased risk of cancer. Ed has had three bouts of cancer during his transplant journey. He has overcome each battle, while maintaining a positive attitude and outlook. Katrine wishes recipients did not have to take this toxic medication to survive. Ultimately, the Conroys would like to see Canada adopt a Presumed Consent model of organ donation. Presumed consent is an opt out approach where everyone is considered a potential donor, unless they have explicitly decided to opt out. Until this happens, Ed and Katrine hope more people will register their decision to be an organ donor with BC Transplant. It is something so simple but has the potential to one day save many lives.
Katrine sees nothing miraculous about what she did to save Ed, “People tell me what an amazing gift of love I have given to my husband. But I think the person who donated their kidney to Ed is the amazing person. Someone who donated out of the goodness of their heart decided for no reason, other than to be an organ donor, to give their kidney to a complete stranger. That person, whoever he or she might be, is in our families’ eyes, the true hero.”
One thing is certain – there is a great deal of love that surrounds Ed and Katrine.