Vanessa Bailey, a Grade 2 teacher at St. John Catholic Elementary School in Kitchener, Ont., is awaiting a second kidney transplant. Meanwhile, she is returning to work part time this month. Photo courtesy Vanessa Bailey

Teacher awaits ‘miraculous’ life-saving gift

  • November 5, 2021

Since being diagnosed with a kidney disorder almost two decades ago at age 14, Vanessa Bailey’s life has never been the same.

The Grade 2 teacher at St. John Catholic Elementary School in Kitchener, Ont., has a condition called interstitial nephritis and currently awaits a life-changing second transplant surgery.

By the time she began university at Laurentian in Sudbury she had to be put on dialysis three times a week for four hours. After graduating in 2010, she had her first transplant which came from a kidney donated by her cousin Dianne Curtain. The surgery, up until recently, was a success.

But after an appointment with her kidney specialist in September, Bailey learned her numbers were off again and got the disappointing news she would have to go back on dialysis until she receives another transplant. Bailey had the difficult task of letting her students know what was happening with her health and that she had to take some time off of work.

“I cried the whole day, my (students) cried, staff cried,” said Bailey. “It was hard. Families are very sad but yet I felt so much love and support because as a Catholic school they all come together as a community and as a family and they just support you and pray for you and let you know you are in God’s arms and everything will be okay.”

Kidney disease is not foreign to Bailey and her family. Her mom, sister and niece all have the same disease. Her dad donated his kidney to her mother, just months before Bailey had her first transplant. That surgery continues to be a success.

In Canada, the need for transplant organs is much greater than the available supply. According to reports by the Kidney Foundation in 2019, 4,419 Canadians were on a waiting list for a transplant and of those, 77 per cent were waiting for a kidney. There are two types of organ donation, deceased and living donation. In 2018, there were 763 deceased organ donors in Canada.

In 2018, close to 2,800 organ transplant procedures were performed in Canada, according to the Canadian Organ Replacement Register, a pan-Canadian information system for organ failure in Canada. Though thousands of organs are transplanted every year, hundreds of Canadians die while on a waiting list because of a critical shortage of life-changing organs.

Moira McQueen, executive director of the the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, said  in the early days of organ donation Catholics were uncertain about the procedure due to faith questions surrounding the relationship between soul and body. As transplantation became safer, thoughts around organ donation changed within the Catholic community and gained widespread acceptance with some papal endorsements. In August 2000, Pope John Paul II called transplants “a great step forward in science’s service of man.” In 2008, Pope Benedict  XVI called organ donation “an act of love” that is a “genuine testament of charity.”

Bailey recently found out from her transplant doctor that blood type no longer matters due to the paired exchange approach to living donor kidney transplantation. When a potential donor is incompatible, patients are able to swap kidney donors to receive a compatible one. With wait times ranging anywhere from several months to several years, Bailey’s doctor suggested she reach out to everyone in her personal network to try to find someone willing to save her life again.

Zenalia Kroeger has been an inspiration to Bailey since she was a Grade 2 student in Kroeger’s French class. They’ve stayed in touch and maintained a close relationship over the years. Bailey says Kroeger has been one of her greatest life lines throughout the years as she’s battled sickness and worked to be the best teacher she can.

“I consider her to be my Earth angel,” said Bailey. “She has been there with me from day one. She has taught me what teaching all is all about, how we can truly change lives, how being a Catholic teacher is so rewarding and so beautiful. And so ever since I met her, I knew I wanted to follow in her footsteps.” 

Kroeger, who took the test, is not a direct match, but is willing to be a last resort as a paired exchange donor should a direct match not be found. She continues to be a spiritual and emotional support to her friend.

“Vanessa is so filled with enthusiasm, passion for life and love, that meeting her one would never guess that she’s going through these hardships,” said Kroeger. “She’s so positive and is always so upbeat and complimentary towards other people. She’s the first one to check how I’m doing. I send her daily reminders and daily different supports. She’s been resilient and she definitely will beat this.”

Bailey, who has has been struggling with fatigue and nausea, says she’s been most challenged by not being in the classroom with her students. Used to dedicating her time to teaching, Bailey says she’s struggled finding things to do. After discussions with her doctors, they agreed that Bailey is feeling strong enough and will return to work on a part-time basis in early November as the best decision for her mental health.

As she continues to await a transplant, she admits she gets emotional from time to time but she and her support system are adamant about keeping the faith.

“We believe in the power of prayer and in miracles and that God will continue to love and care for Vanessa,” said Kroeger. “We are very optimistic that Vanessa will receive this miraculous gift.”

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