What this N.S. woman wants others to know about donating an organ to a stranger

Katy Hopkins doesn’t consider giving up one of her kidneys to a stranger to be a big deal.

Ask the 43-year-old Queens County, N.S., woman why she spent 19 months undergoing tests and driving a total of 4,000 kilometres to and from appointments, and she answers nonchalantly.

“Once I knew there was something inside me that someone needed more than I did, it just felt like my duty to give it to them,” said Hopkins, who underwent surgery last December.

The three-hour surgery at the QEII in Halifax went well and her recovery has been “uneventful.” In fact, the only complication has nothing to do with the procedure itself, but a little-known reimbursement issue that Hopkins said both she and her team of health-care professionals weren’t prepared for.

Because the stranger who received her kidney lives in New Brunswick, not Nova Scotia, her reimbursement claim of about $1,700 has been held up for weeks.

“I was not expecting it to be as difficult as this. I thought I would just fill in a form and I would get it,” she said. “Hopefully, this is something that no one else will have to think about.”

Both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Health say they’re re-examining their policies to make it easier for people who choose to donate. 

Hopkins had surgery to remove her kidney on Dec. 19 in Halifax. (Katy Hopkins)

Hopkins, who moved to Nova Scotia from England a decade ago, was talking with a friend one day about health when the idea of organ donation came up.

“And I realized that I am fortunate enough to be really healthy without making any effort whatsoever,” she said. “You know, maybe there’s a way for me to share that with other people.”

She had no idea she could donate an organ to a stranger, but after a few minutes on Google, she realized that’s what she wanted to do. In May 2018, she made the first phone call and then spent the next several months undergoing tests.

Healthy adults over the age 19 in Nova Scotia can donate a kidney after extensive medical tests deems it to be safe. They can donate to a friend or family member who is a match, or they can become a non-directed donor, which means they donate to a stranger anonymously.

Hopkins knows nothing about the person who now has her kidney, but she likes it that way.

“I hope that their life has gone back to normal like mine has,” she said.

6 anonymous donors in 2019

The Multi-Organ Transplant Program of Atlantic Canada is based in Halifax and includes donors and recipients from New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

There are between 25 and 30 kidney donors in the program each year, according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority, and last year, six gave a kidney to someone they didn’t know.

Provincial governments cover donors’s expenses, like travel, meals and time missed at work, so they don’t take a financial hit if they choose to donate an organ.

Living donors can donate to a family member, friend or stranger. (Shutterstock)

But each province has its own reimbursement policy, so when Hopkin’s kidney ended up with a New Brunswick recipient, it required a different application under a policy she describes as “considerably less generous.”

New Brunswick’s policy doesn’t cover mileage, only gas, and doesn’t specifically mention donating to a stranger, she said.

Hopkins only learned there was a problem when she followed up with her donor team in January. She was expecting a cheque that month, but is still waiting on it.

“A lot of people have had to work quite hard to iron out this little flaw in the system,” she said.

N.B. reviewing its policy

In an email, a spokesperson for New Brunswick’s Department of Health said it can’t comment on a specific case, but it’s aware there are differences between provincial donor reimbursement policies and it’s working to address it.

“It is important to the department that no donor is deterred from the process due to the financial implications of these policies,” spokesperson Alysha Elliott wrote in an email. “For this reason, the province is planning to undertake a cross-jurisdictional review with the intent to better align ourselves with our neighbouring provinces’ policies on organ donor reimbursement.”

The Nova Scotia Health Authority also declined an interview, but said it began revising its own reimbursement policy recently.

“Our ultimate goal [is] for all live donors to have financial neutrality. We look forward to working with teams in other Atlantic provinces to better meet the needs of those who chose to donate,” it said in an emailed statement.

The health authority added that when a donor from any of the four provinces agrees to an anonymous donation, they are informed that their kidney may go to anyone waiting in another province who’s a match.

It is important to the department that no donor is deterred from the process due to the financial implications of these policies.– New Brunswick Department of Health

Kathy Yetzer, senior adviser and program lead for living donation and transplantation with Canadian Blood Services, said she’s happy provinces are taking a look at their own policies to make the donation process easier.

“Many of the provinces I’ve heard are starting to relook at their current policies and trying to make them as consistent as they can or to help the patients be as cost-neutral as possible,” she said.

Hopkins is self-employed as a videographer, and said $1,700 means a great deal. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Non-directed donors are an integral part of organ donation in Canada, said Yetzer, because they can help someone on a wait list in their region or be part of the kidney paired donation program.

When a non-directed donor comes forward, they can be paired with whomever is a medical match, then that person’s non-compatible donor is matched with someone else, which creates a chain reaction, she said.

“People think when someone donates anonymously, they’re only helping one person. They’re actually helping hundreds of people,” Yetzer said.

‘Would have found a way to do it’

Since returning home from the hospital, Hopkins said she has a new appreciation for time — and she’s trying to spend it wisely. Now, she makes an effort to get out of her home office and walk through the woods on her 40-hectare property.

She’s happy to know a kidney she didn’t need has gone to someone in need.

She’s still waiting for a cheque in the mail, but Hopkins said she doesn’t regret donating an organ, something she hopes every Nova Scotian at least considers.

“I might have worked extra hard to stockpile some of my money to survive on, but it definitely wouldn’t have changed my mind about doing it,” she said. “Even if there was no reimbursement. I still would have found a way to do it.”

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