Happy 25th kidneyversary, Kristina!
As a youngster, Kristina McLaren (Lloyd) remembers tuning into telethon broadcasts in support of The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) that were rich with stories of hope and healing. Then one day the story was her.
Kristina, who celebrated 25 years since her kidney transplant operation at SickKids on Nov. 12, has the distinction of being the first living, non-related organ donor transplant patient at the hospital (more about the donor, her mom’s best friend, below). But Kristina’s experience at SickKids stands out for her in countless other ways.
“My memories are mainly of how welcoming SickKids was when walking into the building,” Kristina recalls. “I never remember being scared or sad. I knew it was a place that was there to help me, and it helped keep me calm during a difficult time in my life.” She has fond memories of the staff on her care team and commends her physician, Dr. Diane Hébert, transplant coordinators Moira Korus and Rita Pool, and nurse Caroline Tapper, who helped bring out the best in her over a five-year period.
Kristina’s journey began at SickKids when she was just six months old. At that time she was declared legally blind due to a condition called coloboma, which occurs when part of the eye tissue is missing at birth. It turned out this condition was related to a problem with her kidneys that wasn’t detected until more than a decade later.
It was the summer of 1997, when the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys were at the top of the charts, and Kristina was a 13-year-old living in the town of South Monaghan, about 20 minutes south of Peterborough. She wasn’t sleeping well, often feeling sick and sometimes throwing up for no apparent reason.
She had gone for bloodwork and the results came on Halloween. “My doctor called and said I have to go to SickKids right away, that they’re expecting me. It was supposed to be my last time trick-or-treating before starting high school, so I was disappointed but packed my overnight bag and drove to Toronto with my mom.”
They were greeted by a team led by Dr. Diane Hébert, a leader in the field of kidney transplantation in children. Diane says she could never forget Kristina, who was her patient from that first day – Diane was the attending nephrologist – to the time she transferred to adult care.
Kristina learned that her creatinine level, which measures the ability of the kidneys to filter the blood, was off the charts in a very bad way. “Everyone was shocked I was acting like it was just any other day and I wasn’t in a coma. They couldn’t believe we arrived by car and not air ambulance,” Kristina says. “They said I was very sick and I had to start dialysis right away.”
A femoral line in the vein was used for dialysis at first, but it took some doing to get it connected properly. That’s when she first met Caroline Tapper, a “lovely and amazing nurse” who helped ease the stress of the situation on that occasion and many more. After a week, a more permanent central line was put in as she would require dialysis three times a week until an organ donor could be found.
Kristina took the news of needing a kidney transplant relatively well. “I don’t remember feeling shocked about having to have a kidney transplant. Dialysis made me feel awful and I think I was more upset that I had to quit figure skating because of all the treatments,” she says.
The search for an organ donor began. She didn’t share the same blood type with her parents, so they were ruled out, and her brother was too young. Then her mother’s best friend, Linda Berry, volunteered “out of the blue” to be tested to see if they were a match.
“The match was so good it was like we were related,” Kristina says. She remembers some debate in the household between her parents, Angela and Anthony Lloyd, around the decision. What if the surgery wasn’t successful? What if a child of Linda’s needed a kidney down the road? Was Linda thinking this through properly?
Linda underwent a comprehensive physical and psychological examination prior to donating the organ, which is standard for any living donor, and eventually got the green light. The transplant was booked for April 1998.
Kristina can’t say enough about the support she received at SickKids in the interim period. Doctors and nurses were always positive and uplifting, constantly checking on her to see how she was doing, and taking time to chat about anything. Though she felt too cool for a visit from a Therapeutic Clown, she fondly remembers the times a Child Life Specialist would connect a Nintendo to an extra-large tube television for her to play video games.
Her transplant date ended up being delayed until November.
On the eve of the operation, Kristina had dinner with her family and Linda at the Old Spaghetti Factory in downtown Toronto.
The morning of the transplant she doesn’t remember feeling too anxious, but that could have partially been because of the medication. She found out later there was a setback during the procedure because the kidney wasn’t working at first. It was devastating for her family to hear, but the team said they would keep at it and, after another couple of hours in the operating room, her new kidney started “making beautiful urine.”
In the weeks following surgery, her body was working well on the inside, but there were side-effects (e.g., weight gain) from her transplant and medications that were particularly difficult for her 14-year-old self to accept. Fortunately, she had a great group of friends in her network.
Kristina’s follow-up appointments at SickKids after her discharge started at once a week, and gradually declined to every other week, once a month, every three months and annually until the age of 18 (she transferred to an adult hospital thereafter).
“I was incredibly fortunate to have the same care team throughout. My doctor Diane, my transplant coordinators Rita and Moira, nurse Caroline. They were my girls,” she says. “And it’s been smooth sailing ever since.”
Rita, who was Kristina’s primary transplant coordinator, remembers Kristina had a wonderful sense of humour, and is grateful to her for taking part in a photo book that Moira developed to help patients and families understand what post-transplant life looked like. “The book was such a great resource for other patients. It really helped them understand what to expect and be as prepared as possible,” adds Moira.
Caroline added that being tracked down for this story was a touching reminder of beautiful moments like this throughout her career. “I do fondly remember Kristina and her family,” Caroline says. “There is a part of you that carries memories of all patients, many of whom become like family while they are in your care.”
Although kidney transplants typically have an average life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, Kristina has never counted down. Her philosophy is to live every day to its fullest. She is happily married, has two wonderful step-children (and two step-grandchildren), has a fulfilling job in education, travels at every opportunity, and is loving life.
“Every time I came back to SickKids for a visit, everyone always remembered me, and that says a lot considering how many patients they see,” Kristina says. “Everyone that was part of my team, between the nurses, the transplant coordinators, the doctors, the Child Life specialists… they always helped me feel at ease. It was really a great place for care and I am grateful that SickKids and its phenomenal people were there for me.”