As more and more people pulled together to drastically improve her quality of life, Jessica Stobbe’s sense of gratitude reached new peaks.
With her younger brother’s kidney working its magic inside of her, she’s finally off dialysis and on the mend in Winnipeg, where she’s being monitored until such time as she’s in the clear.
Then, it’ll be back to her life at a farm near Boissevain with husband Nevin Stobbe, where the 28-year-old will finally get a break from the world of health care she was thrust back into several months ago.
Stobbe has IgA nephropathy, a kidney disease that she first took notice of at the age of 19, by which time her scarred kidneys were functioning at about 50 per cent and dropping.
A 2010 kidney transplant from her mother, Aynsley Helwer, gave her another five years of kidney function, but it, too, ended up breaking down.
By mid-2015, Jessica was back on home dialysis until an infection forced her to switch over to in-hospital hemodialysis in Brandon, which she undertook every other day from June until she had a new kidney transplanted on Feb. 16.
Brother Andrew Helwer, 26, said that knowing what his elder sister was going through made his decision to donate a kidney an easy one.
"I really saw how terrible of a situation dialysis is," he said, adding that he can’t imagine how difficult sitting in a room for more than three hours, three times per week, in order to your blood filtered through a machine would be.
It wasn’t fun, Jessica agreed. "It doesn’t really give you a great quality of life, but it keeps you alive."
Andrew wasn’t alone in his eagerness to help Jessica.
Although Andrew was deemed the best match, all three of Jessica’s siblings got their blood tested to see whether they were compatible, and many extended family members expressed an eagerness to help out. Aynsley had already done her part and father Reg Helwer said that he was, regrettably, incompatible.
Andrew was keen from the very start, Jessica said, even describing her younger brother as "pumped" to undergo surgery in order to help her out.
"He was never too scared to do it or anything like that," she said with a hint of amazement lingering in her voice, adding that he was even watching surgery videos prior to the procedure, intrigued by the whole process.
The procedure didn’t go as smoothly as anyone would have wanted.
Complications in surgery resulted in Jessica undertaking four blood transfusions, thereby relying on more people’s generosity; this time their donation of blood.
While things haven’t exactly been easy, Jessica said that she recognizes how lucky she is to be off dialysis.
Not everybody living with kidney disease is able to secure a donor as she did, with more than 200 people currently on the wait list for kidney transplants in Manitoba, according to Transplant Manitoba.
In recovery in Brandon before returning home to his life as a software engineer in Seattle, Andrew said that seeing his sister out of hospital, off dialysis and easing into her normal life again has made his live organ donation worth it.
While his risk of elevated blood pressure increases with the absence of one of his two kidneys, a single-kidney life isn’t too restrictive, with his remaining kidney expected to grow over time to accommodate its added workload.
Jessica said that it’s been a rough year, but that she recognizes that tough times often continue even longer among those who are unable to secure donors.
She encourages people to sign themselves up to become organ donors, online at signupforlife.ca.
Further to that, Reg stresses the importance of letting one’s family members know they intend on becoming an organ donor, which helps ensure the correct steps are taken to follow through on their wishes.
It can also spark a conversation that results in more people deciding to become organ donors, he said.
Andrew takes it a step further and encourages others to offer live kidney donations like he did. While he recognizes that far fewer people would be keen on taking this approach, he noted that live kidneys are a lot easier to transplant and the risks to the donor are relatively low, with some estimates citing one person in 3,000 dying as a result of their making a kidney donation.
As Brandon West’s Progressive Conservative MLA, Reg is working the political angle in Winnipeg, where he’s urging his colleagues to do whatever they can to lessen the wait times of those needing organ transplants.
While presumed consent legislation might be one means of tackling the situation, he said that public education is currently the best course of action.
Last week, he read a Private Member’s Statement in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba in which he outlined his family’s struggles around Jessica’s organ transplant. He said that the statement was a means of both promoting organ donations and thanking his colleagues for their ongoing support.
While politics are an important means of addressing the province’s shortfall in organ donations, for the time being he’s focused more on his two family member’s recoveries.
Andrew’s stepping forward was an act of bravery that one doesn’t take lightly, Reg said. After a brief pause to collect his emotions, he added, "I can’t say enough about him."
"If I could do it again, I’d totally do it again," Andrew said matter-of-factly. "Now my sister’s going to able to do a lot of things."
» Twitter: @TylerClarkeMB