Photograph by: Julie Oliver, The Ottawa Citizen
Abby Vara's decision to donate a kidney to her father saved his life
By Chelsey Burnside The Ottawa Citizen
Abby Vara is this year's ambassador of Give the Gift of Life Walk, which took place on Sept. 12, 10 a.m., at Andrew Haydon Park. The walk, held by the Kidney Foundation of Canada, raises funds for research for the prevention of kidney disease. Visit http://www.kidney.on.ca for more details.
On Father's Day 2009, Abby Vara saved her dad's life.
Though her five-foot-one frame could never have carried him out of a burning building, and the closest thing to a weapon involved was a surgical scalpel, Abby's decision to donate one of her kidneys to her father was nothing short of heroic.
"He didn't have a choice in the matter," says Abby, 24. "People would always ask me, 'Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?' After awhile they got sick of asking, because I would always say 'Absolutely.' I didn't have a doubt in my mind."
Her father Erampamoothy Varaprasatham, known to friends and family as "Vara," has been affected by a rare, yet-to-be-diagnosed neurological disorder since 1993. His health has steadily deteriorated, a downward spiral of strokes, angina, epilepsy, gout, diabetes, and finally kidney failure -- all because of a virus that managed to outsmart medical professionals.
"I lost my speech, I lost my memories," says Varaprasatham, who practised medicine until his onset of ailments. "They sent me home to die."
But no one, especially the close-knit Sri Lankan family of five, was ready to sit back and watch him surrender to the disease. Offers began flooding in from friends, family and good samaritans willing to donate their organs in order to help Varaprasatham, who was on a four-year waiting list for a deceased donor kidney while struggling through debilitating hemodialysis treatments.
"It was really difficult to watch him suffer from kidney failure," says Abby, her usual bubbly voice deadpan. "You could see the toxins building up in his body. His skin colour was so dark that he was almost blue. It was a very disturbing thing to see."
Being the youngest of three daughters, the Algonquin College broadcast student decided to be tested to see if there was a chance she could be the one to give him one of her kidneys. She was thrilled to hear they were a perfect match.
"A lot of our family members were tested, but I was secretly hoping it was me," says Abby, who was 20 at the time she made the decision to undergo the surgery.
"We've seen my dad on his deathbed more times than I can count on my hands. I don't remember my dad healthy. It became a way of life for my family, and it definitely brought us a lot closer together."
After almost three years of cyclic tests, checkups, treatments and enough rough patches to make even the most optimistic of families give up hope, Abby got the call from specialists at the Riverside Campus of The Ottawa Hospital that her father's health was finally stable enough for the transplant.
"The kidney worked right away," says Abby. "Even on life support, my dad started to look healthier."
Now well past the first anniversary of the surgery, the Varaprasathams are doing better than ever. Abby's father's quality of life has improved tenfold from the years he was confined to a wheelchair, having regained his kidney function, speech and mobility from Abby's donation. The father and daughter are now working to spread their story, and encourage young people to look into donating kidneys to those affected by kidney disease.
"The biggest thing about kidney disease is that it's relatively silent until you need treatment," says Dr. Todd Fairhead, a transplantation specialist for the Ottawa Hospital.
"By leading a healthy lifestyle, you can prevent kidney disease. The best things people can do is have regular follow-ups with a family physician and restrict their salt intake."
Between 65 and 80 kidney transplants are undertaken in Ottawa each year, and there is a 99 per cent or greater patient survival rate after the surgery. Donors are able to function post-operation when their remaining kidney grows to compensate for its missing mate.
"Nowadays, we're expecting at least 10 years of kidney survival rate in the recipient when we do a transplant," says Fairhead.
As the newly-appointed ambassador of this year's Give the Gift of Life Walk on Sunday, Sept. 12, Abby hopes to promote kidney health and spread the word that kidney transplants aren't as scary as people think. While family and friends supported her decision to donate an organ at such a young age, reading comments on articles written on her story always reminds her that there are still many people who are uninformed about the surgery.
"There was a lot of backlash from people who didn't think a young person should have to do this," she says. "But a life is a life. Any human is worth it. I want to ask them, 'Let's turn the tables and put you on the hotspot. Wouldn't you have done the same as me?'"
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