Would you give your kidney to a stranger?

Altruistic donor saves the life of a 12-year-old girl being treated at The Montreal Children’s Hospital.

On May 18, 2021, Maryse Boivin gave her spare kidney to Valentina, a 12-year-old girl she had never met. She saved Valentina’s life.

Ms. Boivin, age 52, dismisses her generosity, instead directing the kudos to transplant team members and surgeons. "I didn't do much. I just slept throughout the surgery.  I had the easy job.”

The Sherbrooke resident says she felt compelled to donate a kidney for some years, but no member of her family or circle of friends needed one. She went so far as to call her local hospital to learn about becoming an altruistic or good Samaritan kidney donor. “I just really wanted to help someone, to do a good deed.”

Help someone she did.

Valentina was born with cystinosis, a rare but serious genetic disease. The teenager lacks the enzyme needed to break down cysteine crystals. This disease causes an abnormal buildup of cysteine in the body, including the kidneys, heart, brain and muscles. The disease tends to progress quickly in early adolescence resulting in kidney failure and the need for dialysis. Most children with the disorder don’t live to celebrate their 30th birthday. The kidneys are usually the first organ to be overwhelmed and fail. Kidney transplantation is the best treatment for cystinosis. It increases the lifespan of children with the ailment, and dramatically improves their quality of life.  

The first scare

It was in 2017, when Valentina’s health took a turn for the worse, and the family learned the need for a kidney transplant was imminent.

“We try, as much as possible, to find a living organ donor, and we encourage the family to spread the word to see if maybe an uncle, cousin or other family member is a match,” says Angela Burns, transplant nurse at The Children’s. “But Valentina’s family immigrated from Columbia and have no immediate family here. So dad, Edwin Quintero, posted to social media about his daughter’s precarious health.”

It was at this time, the family made contact with Ms. Boivin, who learned of Valentine’s plight on Facebook.  She reached out to offer Valentina one of her kidneys if needed. 

The good news, Valentina’s health stabilized. Ms. Burns says the health care team decided to postpone the kidney transplant as long as possible. 

Ms. Boivin was relieved but said, “I wasn’t able to forget this little girl. I wanted to be there for her when she’d need my kidney.” She worried something might happen to her before she could make the gift.

During the height of the pandemic, Valentina’s health started to flag again. The Children's transplant team reached out to Ms. Boivin, inviting her to get tested to confirm she was a solid match for the tween.

The testing was extensive and took several months. “We want to make sure Ms. Boivin is healthy as we don't want to harm her in any way. She underwent a detailed evaluation including a psychosocial assessment,” explains Jessica La Barbera, Nurse Clinician and Living Kidney Donor Coordinator at the Royal Victoria (Royal Victoria) Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre.

We build an excellent rapport with all living donors, and we want to make sure they are not feeling any pressure to donate, and that is it is a gift, and there is no monetary gain. If, along the way, the donor has any doubts, we stop there, and that’s that. We want the donor to feel in control,” says Ms. La Barbera.

On the day of surgery, Ms.  Boivin was not the least bit nervous. "I was very Zen. I was very good with my decision,” she recalls. Surgeons removed Ms. Boivin’s kidney at the Royal Victoria and walked it next door to The Children’s, where pediatric surgeons implanted it in Valentina.

Inspiring others

Ms. Boivin bounced back from the surgery, returning to work and jogging within two weeks. “It was an easy recovery. If I didn't have a scar, I would think nothing had happened.”

She hopes by sharing her story, other people will step forward to give their spare kidney to a stranger. “My gesture surprised my friends and family, and I certainly got people thinking, which is good. I encourage everyone to consider being a living donor. You can save a life.”

Two days after the transplant, Valentina's parents met Ms. Boivin before she left the hospital. Valentina's mom could barely squeeze out a word because she was crying so much.  When the trio embraced Valentina’s dad welcomed Ms. Boivin into their family, saying, "You are Valentina's third parent now, and she is your daughter too."

For Valentina, the recovery was difficult. “There were a few hic ups, which were completely within the norm but unfortunate,” explains Ms. Burns. Today, Valentina is doing better. The quiet and thoughtful young woman never complains.