Stephen Gillis loves hockey. The game has always been a part of his life. From his years as a player all the way through to today where he coaches minor hockey. He’s a mentor. A friend to many.
And in 2018, he nearly lost his life.
“I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease for many years and when I became really sick, I thought it was my Crohn’s acting up,” says Stephen. “It was a shock to find out I developed a rare form of kidney disease and lost over 90 per cent of my kidney function. A kidney transplant from a living donor was my only option.”
Stephen needed a new kidney, but a matching donor can be incredibly challenging to find.
When the kids he coaches found out about Stephen’s health, they rallied behind their coach.
These were the words Stephen’s U13 hockey team cheered in a video they created, asking anyone who was watching to get tested and see if they were a match.
The video took the hockey world by storm and went viral.
“I love seeing young people involved in community service, but what they did for me and how their good deed changed my life, went beyond anything I could have imagined,” says Stephen.
In the days that followed, an old friend of Stephen’s, Michael Teigen, saw it and decided to get tested.
And as fate would have it, Michael was a match.
“’I’m the one’ – this is what I told Stephen when I broke the news,” says Michael. A video camera captured the heartwarming moment as a weakened Stephen, laying in a hospital bed at VGH, recovering from a surgery to prep him for the transplant.
With a donor now available, Dr. David Harriman, transplant urologist at VGH, had a chance to save Stephen’s life.
“There’s a lot of challenges with surgery such as this,” says Dr. Harriman. “My fellowship director would always say that transplantation is the ultimate team game – it involves our nurses, housekeeping staff, transplant surgeons, transplant nephrologists … it involves all of us working together to try and optimize the outcome.”
Complications can happen with any procedure they do, Dr. Harriman says. In addition, a number of patients will have other medical illnesses such as diabetes or high blood pressure, which can trigger issues after transplantation.
“These patients can often be complex,” says Dr. Harriman. “And with our team, we try and give them the best care possible.”
Stephen and Michael’s surgeries were performed at Vancouver General Hospital, one of only two hospitals in the province able to perform kidney transplants. As a major provider for solid organ transplants in BC, and one of the largest in Canada, VGH conducts more than 100 transplants each year.
Under the expert care of Dr. Harriman and his team, the transplant was a roaring success. Both Michael and Stephen had textbook procedures. No complications. And both men felt as well as can be following surgery.
Stephen recovered so well, in fact, he went and coached a game the day after he was released from hospital. It was only five days after his surgery.
“Michael gave me the gift of life,” says Stephen. “It was an amazing, selfless act by a wonderful human being.”
Stephen has learned firsthand the impact donors, in more ways than one, have on the life and health of someone in need. He lived through it.
“My medical team was amazing and the technology was cutting-edge,” says Stephen. “The young people I coach are exceptional, and Michael is the friend everyone should have. Yet it’s because of donors that VGH was able to save my life.”
Donors directly impact the quality of care available at our hospitals and health care centres, supporting research, life-saving equipment, and the best medical professionals in the world.
Since that day, Stephen and Michael have rekindled their friendship and forged a deeper bond than many can understand. They have also gone on to do more together, including the anniversary of their respective surgeries to promote organ donation and advocate for dialysis patients to get their vaccines sooner than the general public.
“I also ran a 5K with Michael,” says Stephen. “Pretty good for a 40-year-old with a donor kidney! I feel better every day and I am looking forward to the holiday season this year. We get to celebrate the joy of being healthy, together.”
Today, Stephen is back in the rink doing what he loves – coaching.
And just like they had his back, Stephen is once again behind the player’s bench, having theirs.
It took a community to save Stephen’s life. It was his angels: from the kids he coached and the remarkable friend who gave an incredibly selfless and life-changing gift, to the health care experts who cared for both of them.
You are an important part of that community. Donate today to support our hospitals and health care centres, including purchasing critical equipment, funding high-impact research projects, and advancing patient care to deliver BC’s best, most specialized health care for adults, saving lives like Stephen’s every single day