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St. John’s woman giving kidney to husband for Christmas

Chris and Carolann Harris will go to Halifax in the new year for a kidney transplant operation.
Chris and Carolann Harris will go to Halifax in the new year for a kidney transplant operation. - David Maher

Carolann Harris has the perfect gift for her husband this Christmas: her kidney.

After years of fighting a rare autoimmune disease, Chris, 33, and Carolann, 34, are just months away from travelling to Halifax for the transplant.

But it’s been a long, frustrating road, with a financial burden staring the young family in the face at an expensive time of year.

Chris and Carolann met at a local darts game eight years ago, through Carolann’s stepfather, a family friend of Chris. At the time, Carolann was married, so Chris had to be patient.

Two years later, Carolann became single, and Chris asked her out on a date as soon as he could. Chris is 6’5”, so he would crouch down to speak with her at eye level.

Today, they’re celebrating six years of marriage.

Five years ago, the first signs of illness showed up. Chris showed a lack of energy and was noticeably pale for months. He resisted going to the doctor at first, but after he spent a long night vomiting blood in the bathroom, they knew something serious was happening.

Chris was diagnosed with Goodpasture syndrome, a genetic disease that attacks the immune system and destroyed blood vessels in Chris’s lungs and kidneys.

After Chris fought the disease for a few years and had to leave a job at the Keg, the disease went into remission. Chris went to school to become a carpenter, despite losing much of his kidney function.

Two months away from finishing his program and returning to work, the illness came back.

Today, Chris has no kidney function, and undergoes three dialysis treatments a week. Chris and Carolann are waiting to travel to Halifax early in the new year for the transplant.

Carolann works 60 hours a week as a personal care worker to support the family, which includes 13-year-old Anthony and 11-year-old Abigail.

Chris says it’s very special to know the kidney he needs is coming from the woman he loves.

“I feel blessed. As opposed to being put on a waiting list, and you don’t know where it’s coming from, I’m getting it from someone I love dearly and I’m married to and I trust with my life,” he said.

“She’s giving it to me. There’s a lot of comfort in that.”

Carolann says it’s special to know she can give her husband new life.

“It’s amazing,” she said.

“I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights, trying to figure things out in my head, a lot of deep thought. I am very, very happy. I just want to get it over with now. I’ve had two kids, giving away a kidney is not going to phase me.”

While the organ donation is special, it comes with a financial burden.

The provincial government does offer a reimbursement program to people travelling for such surgeries – but between two kids, a mortgage and the travel costs, the family doesn’t have much funding up front to get reimbursed with. When the couple found out in October that Carolann was the donor, raising money for the trip and recovery period became the first priority.

“One of the first things they tell you is, ‘We’ll do you up a letter so you can do some fundraising.’ Which is all fine and well, but that’s hard and you shouldn’t have to,” said Carolann.

She says she had to tell her children that Christmas was going to be a little different this year, to allow for Daddy’s surgery.

Anthony, the older brother, knows the truth of Santa Claus, but little sister Abigail still believes.

“We’ve just told her that with everything going on, Santa’s biggest gift is that Daddy is going to get Mommy’s kidney and that Daddy’s going to be better,” she said.

“We said that was the biggest gift Santa could bring. We said we had to take it a little light this year, because that’s such a big wish.”

The Kidney Foundation, on a national level, receives funding from some provinces to provide up-front, repayable loans for families travelling for transplants – but the travel loans do not apply to the Atlantic provinces.

The couple has relied on family and friends so far, but a GoFundMe campaign has so far raised only $600 of the $10,000 goal.

But finances are only one of the roadblocks the couple has faced.

Carolann is a sexual assault survivor and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result.

Because of her PTSD, a number of letters from health care professionals was required to ensure she could handle the strain. But another speed bump presented itself: Carolann says her doctors were concerned that her mental illness could prevent her kidney donation to Chris.

“It was compared to me on the phone by a medical professional that me having a mental illness is like cancer. She said, ‘If we’re not going to take a kidney from a cancer patient, why should we take one from you?’”

“At the end of the day, he will get my kidney because we’re going to fight this. But they’re delaying us because I have to prove to them that having the surgery on my part is not going to trigger my PTSD.”

Carolann says she’s gotten all the letters asked for at this point, so it’s just a matter of the paperwork going through the system.

He won’t be 100 per cent cured, but with a new kidney, Chris can begin to return to a normal life. Carolann says that’s all they want this Christmas.

“If he can get 10 to 15 years out of a kidney before needing another one, that’s fantastic.”

The couple says they’ll breathe their first sigh of relief in five years, once the plane lands on the tarmac in Halifax in the new year.

Twitter: @DavidMaherNL

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