Before pushing their dragon boat away from the dock, Team Transplant members toss a handful of green carnations into the sky, remembering those they have lost over the years and the donors who gave them a second chance at life.

Donna Fleming, 64, founded the team more than 20 years ago to bring together transplant recipients, people on dialysis, health care workers, donor family members and those still on waiting lists to receive an organ.

“We’ve developed a real bond — the people I’ve met here will be friends for life,” said Fleming. “Sadly, we’ve lost more than a dozen team members over the years.”

Fleming counts herself as one of the lucky ones. She was born with 1 functioning kidney and, at just 16 years old, started having dialysis at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children 3 times a week. The time-consuming procedure meant she had to stretch her last year of high school over 2 years.

“I used to say that you get into such a rut of dialysis — everything revolves around you and the dialysis treatment and the medications and the special diet,” said Fleming. 

In 1973, 8 months after starting dialysis, Fleming received a kidney from a deceased donor. That kidney, which she affectionately refers to as “Kidney Bean,” has allowed her to lead a healthy, active life for 46 years.

Fleming knows her case is exceptional. Our latest organ donation statistics show that 74% of Canadians with a kidney transplant still have a functioning kidney after 10 years, while only 16% of Canadians on dialysis survive past 10 years.

Outcomes for transplant recipients refer to the survival of the transplanted organs, whereas dialysis outcomes refer to the survival rate of patients. If transplanted organs fail, patients can still receive dialysis. After 46 years of good health, Fleming is now back on dialysis. This time, she’s on nocturnal dialysis at Toronto General Hospital, which requires her to stay overnight at a clinic 3 times a week. This allows her to keep working during the day at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in medical transcription.

“Going back on dialysis was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said Fleming. “I thought I was prepared for it, but when it came to the day where I had to go on dialysis again for the first time in such a long time, I was in tears. You really have to arrange your life around it.”

Fleming is currently undergoing testing to determine whether her health is stable enough to receive a second transplant. In the meantime, she’s trying to stay as active and healthy as she can.

As she waits to see what comes next, there’s one message she’s still actively pushing across to anyone listening: organ donation saves lives.

“That kidney has been everything to me. It’s still there and still ticking away for me as much as it can,” said Fleming. “I’m grateful it’s lasted for so long and that it might give others hope that it will go that way for them as well.”

Donna Fleming holding Team Transplant’s mascot and the Gloria Santini Award for her work in organ and transplant awareness

Related resources

Organ replacement in Canada: CORR annual statistics, 2018