A new beginning of hope and healing through the gift of life

April 28, 2022 – A new graduate fresh out of the Winnipeg General Hospital’s operating room technician course was in awe at being selected to scrub in with the team participating in the very first organ donation and transplant surgery in Manitoba.

Carole was a 1967 graduate and was just entering her second year of working in the surgical suites at the General, now HSC Winnipeg, when she became part of history.

“I was at the OR desk and saw there was an emergency booking,” recalls Carole, adding she regularly checked in at the nursing desk to see what was on the schedule. “It was only marked ‘procedure.’ We weren’t told about it until it was set to go.”

It was close to the end of 1969. An excitement was building at the General but details about what was to come was kept within a small circle. Just a year earlier, a committee of trustees, administration and medical staff were hard at work determining if the hospital had the necessary facilities and staff to support a kidney transplant program. A moral and ethics committee was also formed to establish recommendations and procedures to guide the process. The hospital’s Board of Trustees officially approved the life-transforming procedure in October and Manitoba was on its way to performing the province’s very first kidney transplant.

Local press clippings from 1969 noted the decision to begin kidney transplantation made Winnipeg the fifth city in Canada to perform the procedure behind Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Saskatoon. Hospital administration said at the time that the names of the transplant team would not be revealed and neither would the names of the donor or the recipient.

As the first surgery approached, Carole described the mood at the time as being sombre. 

“I remember being called into the director’s office and informed about the procedure that was booked, and that I was going to be part of the donor team in the OR,” she said. “I was excited to be a part of this history-making team and participating in the very first kidney donor and recipient surgery.”

Carole was part of the briefing with the rest of the team and met with surgeon Dr. Allan Downs to go over the instrumentation and documentation that would be required, and to understand her specific role. Despite it being a first and the team not having transplant experience, Carole says preparing for the surgical process didn’t differ greatly from any other procedure, including treating the donor with dignity and respect. Due to the seriousness of the task and the fact it had never been done before, she recalled the overall feeling in the operating room that day was tense, even though Dr. Downs had completed training prior to the procedure.

“The recipient team was preparing across the hall. We relied on routine and procedure and did not deviate. Timing and documentation is everything,” she said, adding everything went well.

A few years after this experience, Carole changed the course of her operating room career and entered HSC’s School of Nursing. She graduated as a Registered Nurse and returned to the OR to pursue her love of surgery and her passion for organ and tissue donation. After years of working in the OR, Carole received further training in tissue donation and completed the Eye Bank Technician Training Program. She became an eye bank technician and provided on call services for the Manitoba Lion’s Eye Bank (tissue donation services are now provided by Tissue Bank Manitoba). She spent 10 years with the Eye Bank in addition to her nursing role.

Carole was an integral part of the team when organ donation services first became available at St. Boniface Hospital.  “As the OR Educator at St. Boniface, I was there on the ground floor and was able to take my experiences and organ and tissue donation training to teach the operating room nurses at St. B.”

Over time Transplant Manitoba – Gift of Life has grown and changed with advances in the field of donation and transplantation, however, the dedication and determination of the men and women in those surgical suites and the courage, compassion and generosity of the donor and the donor family, will not be forgotten.

As the daughter of the first kidney recipient, Jean cherishes the time it gave her father and her whole family. “It is with profound gratitude that we honour the doctors, nurses, and all the staff who performed the province’s very first kidney transplant. This procedure gave our mother another 13 glorious years with the love of her life and those years allowed him to experience the addition of seven wonderful grandchildren.”

For more information about the history of Transplant Manitoba – Gift of Life, please visit Our Story.