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A Pictou County mother reflects on giving her son a kidney

Dorothy Jardine looks over a scrapbook of press clippings from when her son Jimmy became a kidney transplant recipient almost 50 years ago. His was only the second transplant performed in Halifax.
Dorothy Jardine looks over a scrapbook of press clippings from when her son Jimmy became a kidney transplant recipient almost 50 years ago. His was only the second transplant performed in Halifax.

Dorothy Jardine, 89, was quietly raising a family on a farm in Union Centre until illness turned her world upside down in the early 1960s, making her a passionate supporter of organ donation.

She was surprised in 1951 when the second of her five children turned out to be twin boys and devastated when one of them became seriously ill with kidney disease at the age of 12.

 “Jimmy got very sick, so sick we were afraid we were going to lose him,” Jardine remembers.

They grew as much of their own food as possible, were two miles from the nearest neighbour with a phone and her husband Murray worked at Trenton car works.

“In those times they might work a couple of months and then there’d be no work so no money coming in. When you got money it had to last.  Having anybody sick in a family usually meant hard times,” said Jardine.

Her daughter, Isabel Fancey, was the oldest and she remembers often arriving home from school to a note that her parents had rushed Jimmy to hospital in Halifax.

“Dr. George Whitman, just a young doctor at the time, sent us to Halifax the first time. We got there after dark and had to ask the police for directions. They were kind enough to lead us to the hospital,” said Jardine.

Jimmy’s condition steadily worsened and he spent long periods in hospital.

“Children weren’t allowed to visit and that was hard on sick children and their families. Somebody would sneak us up a back staircase and we’d get a few minutes to talk to Jimmy from the door before we were rushed out,” Fancey recalls.

After a few years Jardine and both twins were sent to a Montreal hospital with high hopes that Johnny could donate a kidney for Jimmy. The first successful transplants in Canada had been between identical twins and the procedure was still very new.

“We all had such hopes but Johnny wasn’t a good match so they sent us home,” said Jardine.

Fancey remembers their return: her mother went upstairs for a rare cry before she could face what had to be done at home. Downstairs, Johnny was on the couch bawling.

“People in the community had all given something to cover the cost of us going to Montreal.  Everyone knew how sick Jimmy was and now we didn’t know where to turn,” said Jardine.

As efforts to treat Jimmy continued, all family members were tested to determine the feasibility of being kidney donors.

Eventually, Jardine was found to be the best match – not an ideal match but the situation was now desperate and it was reasoned she might be able to buy her son time. By now there were surgeons in Halifax willing to attempt the transplant. At age 17, in the summer of 1969, Jimmy became the second person in Nova Scotia to receive a kidney transplant. The first, Betty Gibberson, of Riverton, was still in hospital and did not recover.

“I had no hesitation, none whatever. I wanted it done as fast as it could be done and those doctors were so good to Jimmy,” said Jardine, adding she and her son were wheeled into the operating room together for the three hour procedure.

Jimmy became the first surviving kidney recipient and his mother’s kidney managed to keep him   alive but he was again seriously ill when word of a new kidney came seven years later.

“It was a much better match and that transplant gave him back a good life. His schooling was always interrupted by illness, but he had taken a commercial course and I think it was through community services that he went to work for the Municipality of Pictou County. He was there 30 years before he retired,” said Fancey.

Jimmy was always ready to help his mother or siblings and their children, she added.

“He’d make sure a kid got picked up after school if he needed or got to a dentist appointment and he’d be at all their ballgames. He’d check your house if you were away. He kept us all in vegetables with his gardening and he would do anything for Mom.”

Jardine wishes it was Jimmy, rather than her, telling the story of his transplant success but he died of cancer in 2015.

“He marked the 25th anniversary of his first transplant and talked to the newspapers but he was a very quiet guy. We wanted him to talk more about it but he said he’d wait for his 50th anniversary and he didn’t quite make it,” said Fancey.

The Jardines know almost nothing about Jimmy’s donor.

“He was a young man, that’s as much as we were told. His family did an awful lot of good with his donation. I don’t imagine my old organs would be much good to anybody but I’d give them if they would,” said Jardine.

Jimmy’s struggles were not the only ones Jardine faced as one of her sons died in a boating accident on Garden of Eden Lake and she has since lost grandchildren. Twenty years ago she was in Westville, driving her husband home from a doctor’s appointment when he slumped over in the passenger seat. She sped to a doctor’s office for help but it was too late.

“Life brings good times and troubles but you just keep going. That’s all I ever knew to do,” she said.

Growing up on a farm, Jardine was well-equipped to raise her family on an uncertain income and when the children were mostly grown she went to work as a cook at Riverview Adult Residential Centre, enjoying her time there.   

“You have to enjoy the good times and be sure to sign your driver’s license and let people know you want to be an organ donor.”

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