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Giving the gift of life

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Thawennontie Thomas was with his siblings when his mother, Sylvia Thomas, told them she needed a new kidney. 

“We just sat there in silence,” Thawennontie remembered. “It must have been five, 10 minutes, just processing. And then of course I’m the one with the big mouth, so I said, ‘Wow, what are we going to do guys? Are we going to pull straws?’ We all laughed. It was a way to break the ice.”

Though the news was a blow to the family, Sylvia’s need for a kidney wasn’t too surprising. She had been dealing with kidney issues for much of her life, though friends and family didn’t really know the extent. 

“I was the healthiest sick person!” Sylvia laughed. “Even while I was on dialysis, I was still doing things, I was still riding my bike.”

It’s been just over a month since Sylvia received a new kidney from her son Thawennontie, and she says she’s already feeling nearly back to her old self. 

“It’s like night and day.… The surgeon was saying that when he put my son’s kidney in me, it just started working right away,” she said. “It was working so well that the nurse in the recovery room was like, ‘We have to slow this puppy down, it’s working overtime!’”

Initially, two of Thawennontie’s siblings stepped up to offer their kidneys, but they found they weren’t a match for donation.

“I could see that they felt really defeated,” Thawennontie said. “I was there for them when they told me, but then there was this profound feeling where I realized, ‘okay, well, I guess it’s my turn.’”

Thawennontie said he had a long and emotional conversation with his mother that night, where she made sure that this was something he truly wanted to do and told him that she didn’t want to pressure him into donating. But for Thawennontie, donating the kidney to his mother was an easy decision.

“I’m from her. I came from her body. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. So for me to give this piece of myself and give it back to her, I never thought twice about it,” he said. “From the day that she let us know she needed a new kidney, it was a no-brainer for my brothers and sisters and I.”

Thawennontie started extensive testing in November 2022 to find out if he was a match for donation. Though his optimism grew, he struggled with bubbling anxiety, worrying that something could go wrong at the last moment. 

“It’s this realization that you don’t want to mess it up. It’s a feeling like you’re walking on eggshells,” he said, adding that he relied heavily on his support network of friends and family who did know about the process. “It’s a heavy weight to carry. You’re carrying the weight and well-being of somebody else, and that somebody is my mother, so she means so much to me.”

In late July, Thawennontie was called into the hospital for what he assumed to be another routine health check. He was met by six doctors in a boardroom who told him that his kidneys were functioning extremely healthily, and that all of his physical examinations had yielded phenomenal results.

“I asked them, ‘Guys, is this happening? Is it? Is this the answer?’” he said. “And they told me, ‘This is it. You’re a match. You’re good to go.’ And right there, I had this huge sigh of relief. It was a huge weight off my shoulders, and the excitement in the room with that incredible team of doctors was just an emotional overload.”

When Thawennontie exited the room and saw his mother he struggled to get the words out, overcome with emotion at the news.

“We just sat there, we both cried, we were both extremely thankful, and we just shared this bonding experience just between the two of us. We processed it there for about 15 minutes. We just hugged it out,” he said. 

“We just reminisced on what the past months had been like for us, and to see this huge journey for my mom coming to an end was so profound for me. Realizing I could give her that quality of life back was just really something meaningful.”

For Sylvia, it’s hard to put into words how much Thawennontie’s gift means to her.

“I’m so, so grateful. I’m blessed that he was a match and that he was able to give it. I got a second chance at life,” she said. “I’m blessed that I was given a kidney and that my family was there for me.”

Recovery has had its ups and downs, but both Thawennontie and Sylvia have healed well, and are getting back to regular life. 

“We’ve had a lot of positivity, a lot of laughs, and it’s a bit painful every time I laugh, but it’s a good pain. Laughter is the best medicine you can possibly have,” Thawennontie said. “To give her life after she gave me mine, it’s the greatest gift I can give her.”

This article was originally published in print on Friday, September 22, in issue 32.38 of The Eastern Door.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.