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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to work in Toronto’s financial district. I have vivid memories as a kid, picturing my adult-self walking to work and tapping onto an elevator with a key card. To me, that was the pinnacle of success: a key card.

Growing up, I worked as a spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and spent a lot of time in the ivory towers and wood-panelled boardrooms of the city. I was always impressed by the cast of characters; they were driven, smart, independent and motivated people who, from my vantage point, were rewarded for working hard. It didn’t matter what hand you’d been dealt, working on Bay Street meant you could write your own destiny. I learned that – nine times out of 10 – passion yielded positive results.

I started my career with a crisis-communications firm, working with global organizations on some of their most pressing issues. The pace was fast, relentless and scary. I loved it. I knew immediately that I’d found my calling.

For more than a decade, I’ve been honing my craft, most recently with a downtown law firm. My every decision, every move, was laser-focused and centred on how to win. It was certainly not for the faint of heart, but it was exactly where I wanted to be.

As my career progressed, the intensity and demands of the job increased. I had a team of people reporting to me. I was travelling to speak at conferences. I was financially independent, living in a beautiful neighbourhood, in my own place. I was writing my destiny. Or was I?

If Bay Street-mentality taught me anything, it’s that nothing good lasts forever. In November, 2018, I was rushed to the emergency room. I was placed in the resuscitation unit. I was 32 years old and on the verge of having a heart attack.

This was my fall.

After two months of continuous hospital visits and tests, I was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure. Thirty years of living with type 1 diabetes and 15 years of climbing the corporate ladder screeched to a halt.

I was immediately placed on pills, 14 in total. More than I had ever seen in my life. I started to check my blood pressure three times a day. I began the renal diet to limit my sodium, potassium and phosphorus intake. I began monthly appointments with a nephrologist, endocrinologist, cardiologist, pharmacist, dietician and a team of hospital nurses. I would often have to get an MRI in the morning, an ECG in the afternoon and in-between, managed a full schedule at the office.

Despite these new challenges, I went to work every single day, determined to let nothing come between me and my career. Once a month, I had blood taken and a 24-hour urine sample collected. Now tell me, how does one nonchalantly walk around a gleaming office tower with a urine jug in hand? It was the complete opposite of the glamorous visions I’d had of myself on Bay Street.

Despite all my efforts, my kidney function continued to decline. I was always tired, I couldn’t take a full breath of air, I’d lost a ton of weight and became extremely anemic. I was told that in order to survive, I needed a dual-organ transplant: kidney and pancreas.

More than 4,500 Canadians are on the list for a new kidney. The number shocked me. The more I read, the more it scared me. Demand far surpassed supply. Wait times were often 4½ years.

And I was at the bottom of the list.

Two months ago, I got a call from my nephrologist. My need for a kidney had become urgent. He suggested I find a living donor. But how do I ask? Until then, I had kept the details pretty light at work, and while my family and many close friends offered, finding the right match was challenging. But I was determined to continue writing my own destiny and there wasn’t room for a chapter about a sad young woman losing her life to kidney failure. That was not a part of this story and never would be.

In August, I sat on my living-room floor, fought back tears and recorded a video. I was still working full time but finally telling my story. It was the most vulnerable I’d ever been. I uploaded the video on LinkedIn, an online platform for professional connections, not typically where people ask for organs.

The result surprised me. The people I’d worked with and respected put their time and focus on me. Messages of support flooded in. Calls and texts offered resources. People opened up about their struggles. More than 400 people shared my story online and I noticed more than 70,000 views of my video in a matter of days.

After learning of my situation, the CEO of my firm e-mailed the entire company explaining my situation and asked for their support. The calls and e-mails continued. Suddenly, people were submitting forms to apply to donate a kidney to save my life.

I had gone from sitting alone crying on my living-room floor to having my professional network and McCarthy Tétrault, one of Canada’s largest law firms, supporting me.

After months of feeling weak, I finally felt strong again.

The feeling of someone offering you a second chance at life is indescribable. No words can do it justice, but I have been fortunate to have that feeling over and over again thanks to a generous network of people who want to fight with me.

For so many Canadians, the reality is there aren’t thousands of people supporting them. Everyone, however, deserves the chance to write their own destiny. We can eliminate the backlog. Consider this: If one in every 100,000 Canadians donated a kidney, the wait-list would disappear overnight.

I’m currently No. 1 on the kidney-pancreas transplant list and I continue to pursue a living kidney donor. I still have a lot to learn and life will continue to teach me many things. But through all of this, I’m reminded that generosity and empathy live in all of us; that our greatest obstacles are what position us for strength; that communities, both personal and professional, can move mountains, so long as we never ever give up on ourselves or one another.

Alley Adams lives in Toronto.

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