After years of agonizing waiting, Lucy Latino finally stood in the hallway of Toronto General Hospital Friday, weeping and embracing a woman who was about to change her life.
“You’re real,” she said, seemingly almost in disbelief as she looked into Claire Yuricek’s eyes — the eyes of a total stranger who was about to give her a kidney.
As emotion overflowed from both women, the 66-year-old Latino clutched her donor tight.
“I love you,” she exclaimed, through tears.
The poignant moment was the culmination of years of hardship, community support and sacrifice — and a well-deserved payoff for members of the Latino family, who scoured Ontario, searching for an organ transplant for Lucy.
“There’s angels in heaven. I’m lucky, mine walks on earth,” Latino told CBC News before her surgery.
WATCH | Latino meets her donor for the first time:
Latino’s ordeal started about 12 years ago, when the Stouffville, Ont. woman was diagnosed with a kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS. Patients with FSGS have scarring in their kidneys, and over time, some patients gradually get worse until they reach kidney failure. If that happens, they need a transplant or dialysis to stay alive.
For years after her initial diagnosis, Latino said, she was doing well and managing her condition with medication. But a quick decline came on in the last three years, forcing her into dialysis treatments for four hours a day, every other day — something she says was very difficult.
In an effort to help, Latino’s husband Charlie Latino and daughter Dannielle Rodrigues both launched campaigns to help find a suitable kidney donor. Charlie went for a more old-school approach, wearing a sandwich board that read “need kidney for wife” in high traffic areas like Yonge and Dundas Square in downtown Toronto, hoping to find someone who might be able to help.
“I know he loves me unconditionally, I know that. I’ve never doubted that. But [that was] a different level,” Latino said.
Rodrigues, meanwhile, started an Instagram account as part of an online campaign — and it was there that a chance encounter would lead the family to exactly the person they were looking for.
Finally finding a match
Guelph’s Claire Yuricek had been a blood donor for years, starting at the age of 18. Roughly a year ago, she shared an Instagram story about giving blood and tagged the Canadian Blood Services account in her post, which later shared it to a wider audience.
Rodrigues saw the post and responded with a cheer reaction, which in turn pointed Yuricek to the account being used to find Latino a kidney.
“So as soon as I saw the cheer and I took a look at their account, I just messaged her back and said ‘Hey, I’m the right blood type for your mom, why don’t I get the paperwork and start seeing if I’m a match?'” Yuricek said.
She told CBC News that donating blood is very important to her, and there was already a longstanding belief in her family that donating organs after death was the right thing to do. But it wasn’t until reading Latino’s story that she considered becoming a living organ donor.
As time went on and tests proved Yuricek would be a match, the mother of two decided to go for it.
“I knew that I could live my same life with one [kidney], and yet it would be transformative for her,” she said.
WATCH | A closer look at organ donation:
While Latino and Yuricek hadn’t met until Friday, she and Rodrigues had been in frequent contact online in recent months.
“It’s been an honour to call her a friend, and now to be able to call her my mom’s kidney donor is just really special,” Rodrigues said.
“My mom is at a complete loss for words to truly express what Claire’s donation means to her.”
Need for donations great, doctor says
Dr. Markus Selzner, who performed the transplant, told CBC News both women should recover in a relatively short period of time — a donor can expect to be in hospital for two to three days, while a kidney recipient will likely be in hospital for around five days, on a more intense medication regimen.
Selzner said Yuricek should feel no real impact on her life, despite being down to one kidney. He also noted the number of people who need an organ transplant in Canada far exceeds the list of available donors.
“The need is great,” he said.
It’s that need that Latino, her family and Yuricek all say will drive them to advocate for organ donation in the future. In the meantime, Latino continues to overflow with gratitude for the woman who gave her so much, without even knowing her.
“She’s a part of me, and always will be. I promise to take care of myself, more than I already have,” Latino said.
“What can I say about her … she’s an amazing woman, a hero.”