A Christian firefighter from Steinbach is saving another firefighter's life this week by going under the knife.
Russ Reimer has served with the Steinbach Fire Department since 2001 but also works for the Winnipeg Fire Department. He vividly recalls the day when he learned that Kyle Schmidt, another Winnipeg firefighter whom he knows quite well, was in renal failure as his kidneys had shut down.
Reimer says at first he questioned whether this was the same Kyle Schmidt that he got to know years ago at a lead instructor workshop in Brandon. The same Kyle Schmidt whom he knew through his work with the Winnipeg Fire Department. Once that question was answered, he immediately sent Schmidt a text message, asking if in fact, the rumours were true. Schmidt confirmed the diagnosis and Reimer's response was, "I'll give you my kidney."
Reimer admits he had no idea whether his offer even made sense. In fact, he quickly double-checked with another firefighter that donating a kidney was actually possible.
"I didn't know anything about giving a kidney," he says. "I had no idea there was a donor campaign."
For Schmidt, the journey started around 2010. By then, he had been a firefighter for about a decade. It was that year that he was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney disease, called IgA nephropathy. The kidney disease progressed and by late 2020, he hit kidney failure, as his kidneys were working at less than 20 per cent. Today, they are down to five per cent.
"(I) put out the call for donors and Russ came out of the woodwork, an old friend from the Manitoba fire service and he is offering to save my life," recalls Schmidt.
He says his close family was tested, but each one of them came back as a negative match.
"When Russ came out to be a match and he was willing to go through the process with me, it's just completely heartwarming," notes Schmidt. "It gives you a new lease on life."
Reimer says for him, there was no doubt that offering his kidney is what he should do. A man of strong Christian faith, Reimer says he loves people, especially Schmidt and the idea of this friend being sick, was not okay with him.
"(Schmidt) mentions his daughter, not being able to go swimming with her or go do things and instantly that love that the Father has shown me I just was overcome and just said, almost angrily, 'well I'll give him my kidney', that's it, this has got to be fixed," notes Reimer.
Reimer says as soon as he was told that he could live just fine with one kidney, he was ready to go under the knife, noting he would have had surgery that first day already. Back to that first day, Reimer jokes that it was after he sent Schmidt that text saying he would donate his kidney, that he realized he should actually probably check with his wife first.
"She was immediately behind me," recalls Reimer. "She was so proud, she was so happy I would do this."
In fact, since then, Reimer's wife has also signed up to be a living donor.
As for Schmidt's family, he says they were overwhelmed with joy when they learned the news that the kidney transplant would be happening. Schmidt says many of his family live in Edmonton and even Hawaii and if any of them had been a positive match, the logistics would have been difficult because of geography.
"So, when Russ made himself available and the testing started to work out, everybody was just full of joy," he says. "Again, it comes back to being there for my daughter and being there for the community and the fire service and also for Russ and his family in the future."
The kidney transplant is scheduled to happen this coming Thursday at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. Reimer will be admitted by 8 am and guesses the surgery will probably start around two hours later, finishing at about 2 pm. After putting the kidney on ice and sanitizing the operating room, Schmidt will then take his turn. Reimer says by early evening, everything should be finished.
Reimer says he was hoping the two firefighters could then recover in bunk beds, but because Schmidt's procedure is more invasive, he will likely have a longer stay in the Intensive Care Unit, meaning they will likely recover in separate rooms.
For Schmidt, his most recent position with the fire department has been in a fire inspector role. He is hoping to be back at work in some capacity in eight to ten weeks. His goal is to return to full firefighting duties by the end of this year or next year. As for Reimer, he has been told to stay off work for six to eight weeks.
Schmidt says Manitoba has one of the longest wait times for kidneys in Canada. For someone without the option of a living donor, he notes people could be waiting for ten years before a deceased donor becomes available. He says having a donor allows him to get back on his feet to raise his daughter, spend time with his wife and build a friendship with the Reimer family.
Meanwhile, Schmidt is lobbying to see Manitoba's rules changed with regards to our donor program. He notes in Nova Scotia you are considered to be an organ donor unless you make the choice to say no. Whereas in Manitoba, you have to opt-in to the donor program. Schmidt would like to see Manitoba adopt the system used in Nova Scotia. For more information, visit signupforlife.ca.